Coming off his starring run to second at Saturday at World Wide Technology Raceway, rookie David Malukas placed an exclamation point on the trend he’s been forming over the last two months.
The Chicago native opened his IndyCar career by showing his age and inexperience, spinning No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda or bouncing it off walls and rivals. The 20-year-old looked lost during the opening rounds, but after 15 races and a recent string of fast and composed performances, today’s Malukas bears no resemblance to the kid who lasted just 23 laps before crashing on debut in St. Petersburg.
So where, exactly, did Malukas start to turn his season around? If you want to know the truth about a driver, speak to their race engineer.
“To be honest, it was pretty gradual,” DCR’s Ross Bunnell told RACER. “He started out at St. Pete and struggled with tire management, but he was good at saving fuel. Tire management came with time, but even at [WWTR], we definitely struggled with it. A lot of his growth was on our end, just seeing what he likes for car balance. He’s more like a like a Colton Herta, who likes a very neutral car. And he gets away with that.
“So it’s something that’s hard to unload with and be super-aggressive; we’ve tiptoed balance-wise towards what he likes, started putting things together. And then after Indy, we just hit the ground running at Detroit, made the Fast Six, had a pretty strong race, and pretty much from Detroit forwards, he’s been very competitive everywhere. It was refreshing on Saturday night to finally get a result out of it. But we felt like we’ve had pace on street courses, road courses, short ovals. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Malukas and Bunnell have developed a system for finding the best chassis setup for the No. 18 Honda.
“We call it ‘building a cake,’” Bunnell says. “From my end, it’s easy because I’ve got a fast driver, and in general, attitude-wise throughout the weekend, we cruise and are having fun. So when we’re in a practice session, we’re just gonna make changes with the car, go through our list, do our program, and it’s like building a cake.
“We’ve got to figure out what the sprinkles are to use, what kind of frosting that we want, build up the later, get all the changes done, some are good and some are bad, and that’s OK, and then we can discuss later on what we want our final recipe to be for the race or qualifying. So we go in with a fun attitude, work through the things that are big on our list, make decisions, and try to put it all together. There’s no big pressure that we’re putting on ourselves, and it’s working pretty well for us.”
Robbed of Rookie of the Year honors at the Indy 500, Malukas has risen to 16th in the season-long Drivers’ championship and sits close behind 2022 RoY leader Christian Lundgaard, who is 11 points ahead in 15th. Bunnell points to one difference-making skill Malukas has used to produce swift progress late in rookie campaign.
“A lot of it is that David’s a very quick learner and he’s incredibly intelligent,” he said. “It didn’t really take too long for him to realize, Okay, these are what the [anti-roll] bars do, this is how the weight jacker works, how do I get through traffic, run in clean air.’ All that stuff clicked right away, so even though he’s a rookie, he doesn’t give me feedback like he’s a rookie.
“And I even told him when he’s in the car, I don’t need super-technical terms to describe things. Just tell me how you’re feeling, and we’ll go from there. He’s really good at being able to use his tools and traffic, knowing you know, what’s too much. He’s really figured out ovals, and it all happened really quick. He’s just clicked with everything we need him to do. And I don’t think he’s done yet. He’s got a lot left in his tank, which is incredibly impressive.”