It isn’t luck, and it certainly isn’t a fluke. It’s hard work mixed with old and emerging talent that has brought Dale Coyne Racing to the forefront of the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Fastest in every practice session prior to qualifying, the field-leading speed shown this week by Takuma Sato and rookie teammate David Malukas is a testament to all that has been achieved by team on its return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Its 2021 season closed with nothing but losses and change as Romain Grosjean and lead race engineer and damper guru Olivier Boisson departed the No.51 DCR with Rick Ware Racing entry for Andretti Autosport. The sister DCR entry with longtime co-entrants Jimmy Vasser and James ‘Sulli’ Sullivan went through the biggest change of all as driver Ed Jones was dropped and the Vasser Sullivan duo also exited the Illinois-based team.
Faced with yet another reboot, its signing of 45-year-old Sato, a two-time Indy 500 winner, was always going to pay off once the month of May arrived. And in the other seat, Malukas, a 20-year-old sponge, brought his family’s HMD Trucking/HMD Motorsports interest to DCR and spent the week following every piece of advice Sato had to offer.
Together, the DCR duo was a threat to make the Fast 12 and by the end of Saturday, Sato was 12th and Malukas was just shy of transferring in 13th.
Amid another major overhaul, the team deserves credit for staying true to its commitment to doing less at the Indy 500. Last year’s race marked the first time in a long while where only two cars were entered; but whenever possible, the old DCR ran as many as drivers as possible in previous Indy 500s, often to its competitive detriment. With the downsizing has come increased effectiveness, and it’s here where DCR has found the strongest version of itself at the Speedway.
“Running two cars is what I preached all along,” DCR team manager Terry Brown told RACER. “I firmly believe that running two really good cars here suits us much better. I think there’s some surprises here. We lost Olivier last year, but I think everyone’s realizing just how important [lead DCR race engineer] Ross Bunnell is. I’ve said it before: I think he’s borderline genius. And I think it’s showing.
Under big engineering names like Craig Hampson, Michael Cannon and the aforementioned Boisson, Bunnell was able to learn from some of IndyCar’s best before being promoted to race engineer, and with the runway clear for his ideas to serve as DCR’s engineering blueprint, his overarching influence is being demonstrated across Sato’s No.51 DCR with Rick Ware Racing Honda and Malukas’s No.18 DCR with HMD Motorsports Honda. When it’s time to run the cars, Bunnell can be found on the No.18 timing stand while DCR veteran Don Bricker looks after Sato’s car.
“Ross has really developed as our engineering leader, and it’s working really well with Don buying into what Ross is trying to do with the team,” Brown said. “Sometimes when you’ve got more than one real strong-headed engineer, it works against you, but that isn’t what we’ve got here. The whole engineering group all gel.”
Brown also credits the men and women on DCR’s pit crew who’ve put in an incredible amount of hours to make fast Speedway cars.
“Right now there’s a lot of tired people that have done a lot of hard work,” he continued. “I had someone work 109 hours a few weeks ago … and that hard work’s paying off. I didn’t ask him to do that, and I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t happy to hear about that 109 number, but that comes from them trying to do whatever they feel is going to help our team the most.”
Returning to DCR’s drivers, Sato is the best oval racer the team has been fortunate to have within its ranks. Brown admits to being mesmerized by how much Sato has added to the team’s Indy 500 playbook in just a matter of days.
“For sure, we see it in his runs,” he said. “Several days last week, he’d go out early, not do many laps, go back to the garage, come back late in the day, do not very many laps, and be really quick.
“The thing is, he knows what he needs. He knows what he likes. He knows how to talk to the engineers tell them what he wants. It’s just it’s almost magic, how much he knows and his competence level. He’s really got it together, when it comes to understanding what he wants, what the car can and will do.”
It took getting through a turbulent Saturday before Sato was able to secure a spot inside the Fast 12. Malukas was only 0.102mph from making the cut and after another harrowing day of runs, Sato claimed 10th on the starting grid.
With two of the three Team Penske drivers behind Sato and Malukas, along with four of the five Andretti drivers, all three Rahal Letterman Lanigan drivers, the entire A.J. Foyt Racing and Meyer Shank Racing team and more, DCR has shown itself to be a two-car team that should be feared and respected by its Indy 500 rivals.
“I think we’re all pretty comfortable right now,” Brown said. “And I think we’re all pretty tired. I hear a lot of moaning and groaning about how much work everyone’s having to do, but deep down inside, they are all some of the best racers you’ll find in the paddock. People know we’re a smaller team, but all our crew, they do stuff above and beyond to get us where we are. But hey, we haven’t really won anything yet. We’ve just showed a little bit of promise.”