INDIANAPOLIS — Last year, David Malukas was in a learning role. He had a veteran of 12 prior Indianapolis 500 starts to bounce thoughts off of. Takuma Sato had also won two Indy 500’s as well and could easily help Malukas get up to speed quickly around here.
It paid off. Both drivers were towards the front of the speed charts and quick on qualifying day. Malukas was even the top finishing rooking too. Now, Malukas is back for his sophomore start. However, he’s doing so without the help of Sato.
That’s because Sato is off to a new team – Chip Ganassi Racing. The Japanese driver picked up this year where he was found a lot last year – on top. He was quickest in the opening day of practice on Wednesday. Malukas though, was fifth for a long time before sliding down to 16th late with a top speed of 226.141 mph.
“I think it was it went pretty well, you know, we we struggled to start, you know, we, we put so much downforce on the car and for some reason, I guess it was just really great,” Malukas said on his first laps of the month of the IMS oval. “Or maybe it’s the fact that we have this season is just very much on the oversteer. And so it’s just kind of trying to help build that confidence.
“So I didn’t really want that for a day one kind of situation, but we had to deal with it. And, you know, throughout the rest of the day was just building that confidence making me comfortable with that, you know, loose at Turn 1 entry because it’s actually we’re having a lot of fun, especially when following.
“So we’re trying to find a setup there and making the tires last that’s gonna be our main concern. A lot of people we’re definitely on the worst end of things when it comes to tires last and the pace wise, we’re there.”
To make that improvement gives Malukas even more confidence that he had to do it without the help of a veteran presence like Sato within the camp.
“We came back, did a set down, and then in the afternoon it was all about trying to race in traffic,” Malukas continued.
“We ended up getting to a point where we were very quick to getting I’d say about five car lengths back but just that last little bit we were struggling where drivers like (Scott) McLaughlin and Pato (O’Ward), I was just watching them and they were going inside and — they could do whatever they want. They’re going to be some drivers to watch, like very quick when it comes to racing.
“But yeah, and at the end there we were kind of struggling with making the tires last, so that’s going to be something we focus on tomorrow and then all eyes forward for qualifying.”
This year, Malukas has a rookie teammate in Sting Ray Robb. Nothing against Robb, but he’s made five career INDYCAR starts. Sato has 216 under his belt.
To find speed this year all falls on the shoulders of Malukas.
“You know, from our end even last year to kind of help the ton, but when it came to setup, you know, we were kind of on different spectrums when it came to setup and we’re always doing our own thing,” Malukas admitted on he and Sato. “So I think from that end, it’s everything stays the same.”
Malukas told me that he’s now trying to play a mentor or teacher role for Robb now. He’s an open book and hopeful that it helps Robb the way seeing Sato’s information helped him.
“I’ve been a bit have been an open book,” Malukas said. “We’ve looked at Takuma’s (Sato) videos last year. It’s definitely a different perspective being a veteran and supposedly having all this knowledge but I’ve only been there for a season so I’ve been trying to help as much as I can because you know the quicker he gets up to speed of things, I guess comfortable, the better that it’s going to be for the both of us.”
Malukas also notes that the Sato was crazy on the brakes and didn’t know how he did what he did. With Robb, while they don’t have similar driver styles, it’s still closer.
Also, Malukas has a great acumen on ovals too. He doesn’t know why fully, but his results prove themselves.
In what should have been last year’s Rookie of the Year, “Lil Dave” went out and finished second in Gateway last August, fourth at Texas last month and looks like a contender again this year at Indy.
“It was in Indy Lights when I realized I really started to enjoy ovals, but that was going to be my last year in Indy Lights,” he said. “Before that I actually really did not like ovals and really struggled with them and I just thought, this is just not for me. But it was Gateway 2021 in Indy Lights. Right after that weekend I kind of started to get an itch for ovals, and every oval I’ve done after that I’ve absolutely loved it and had a blast no matter where we finished.
“I don’t know what it is with ovals. I love them, and I feel like I connect very well, and of course it very highly depends on the Dale Coyne car. I feel like it gives me a lot of confidence and can show my true 110 percent of my potential that I can give to the car.
“I just love it. To me it just feels like a giant game of chess. You can play on the offensive, on the defensive, you can react to drivers’ mistakes, et cetera. I just love it.”
The confidence also comes from the fact that Dale Coyne has produced some good cars here as of late. Between Ed Jones’ third place finish in 2017, to Malukas and Takuma Sato thriving last year, it helps keep Malukas’ confidence brimming at the world’s greatest race course.
“From last season to this season, the car is still very good,” he says. “Straight off the bat, like I said, we were a bit on the spicy side so we couldn’t really push 100 percent because it was definitely a little bit on edge.
“For the next few days, it’s just going to be bringing that back a little bit to a point where we can give it 110 percent. It’s very good.
“The only thing that we seem to be struggling a little bit on is, like I said, with following and trying to make these tires last. But other than that, just when it comes to raw pace, we are very, very quick, and it feels good knowing with Dale and he gives a lot of advice, a lot of information, and also coming from Bourdais, there’s a few changes and things that he gave to the team that we might be trying in the next few days.”