David Malukas is quietly lurking among the early-season favorites expected to challenge for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.
The 21-year-old Chicago-born Lithuanian-American comes into this weekend’s fifth round of the 2023 season – the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – sitting 13th in the overall standings, 11 points out of 10th. That standing was established by some strong early-season runs, with Malukas finishing 10th in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, followed by an outstanding fourth place at the first oval of the year at Texas Motor Speedway.
“It's been a really good start,” said Malukas, who qualified 20th (1 minute, 10.2562 seconds) for Saturday’s 85-lap race. “The first two races – St. Pete and Texas - were incredible. We were top 10 in the points after Texas, and that's been our goal for this season: to make sure that we try to keep getting consistent top-10 results. The first two races, hit it off the bat.”
A pair of sour results of 20th and 19th, respectively, on the Streets of Long Beach and Barber Motorsports Park followed, which slid Malukas to 13th in points. Malukas took ownership of “a really bad spell from my side” at Long Beach, noting self-inflicted mistakes in every session throughout the race weekend.
“That was one to learn from and was kind of an anomaly,” he said. “I don't know why I was so off that weekend but blame it on jet lag or something. Then, we went to Barber and that is more of an expected result, just from preseason testing and knowing from last year that our road course car is a little bit of a struggle. I think we found a really good street course car; we’re competing with those top teams and same thing with the ovals. We have a very good oval car, probably one of the best.
“When it comes to the road course, that's where we're really have our head shaking a little bit,” he said. “So, this weekend is going to be a bit interesting on that point.”
The promising start this season is aided by a smooth transition on the timing stand of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda, as Alex Athanasiadis was promoted from assistant race engineer to lead race engineer, a role vacated when Ross Bunnell departed for Chip Ganassi Racing over the offseason.
Malukas credits that chemistry as part of his growth and improved early results in his second season competing in North America’s premier open-wheel championship.
“It's a very big factor,” Mulakas said. “If you were to get new engineers and all these new people, it would have definitely hindered performance. You got to get through that awkward phase; they don't know how the team works and I don't know how to communicate with them, and we don't really understand what the things that we want with each other.
“With Alex being my assistant engineer last year, I already had that big step up and already surpassed all of those first connections and all those situations. I managed to get that done in the first season, and now it’s this season, still same people, all the same progress and it's actually been very sweet. We had a few changes here and there, but overall, it's the same people just moved in different spots.”
Although this weekend’s race on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course at IMS has the attention of Malukas and Co., one eye is already peeking at the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 28.
Malukas finished 16th in his debut in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” last year, highest among all rookies. He has three top 10s in each of his last three oval starts dating back to last year, including a runner-up finish in August at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Despite not running his Indy 500 challenger at the Open Test last month, Malukas still ended up 12th fastest on the time sheets after running 150 laps, with a best of 225.162 mph.
“Yeah, you could say that we have somewhat of a dark horse package,” Malukas said. “We did the test already here for the oval, and we didn't have our oval car ready. Everybody else did, and we were still, I think, 12th on the board. Obviously, the oval car makes a big difference, but with time. So, we are very excited.
“We have a very good oval car for the ‘500.’ The car looks very good. Of course, the track still has to choose its winner. So, things still have to go our way, and the track still has to choose us. But I do think we’re in a very good chance or higher probability of the track choosing us as a winner.”
Admittedly, Malukas doesn’t count points when it comes to the Indy 500, choosing to for a go-for-broke mentality. However, he wants to see the Coyne team continue to punch above its weight against the likes of Andretti Autosport, Arrow McLaren, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske and put their name in the top 10 of the standings when the checkered flag falls on the 2023 season in September.
“That is my goal, personally,” Malukas said. “You could say from a short-term goal to maybe get one win somewhere in there. That is asking a lot, but I do think it's possible. Everything has to just go our way.
“So, I'd say short-term goal of course, it would be fantastic but if anything, if I have to pick I really want that long-term goal of end of the season comes and this is the list of drivers in points and you see David Malukas with Dale Coyne Racing in the top 10 in points. That, to me, would be an amazing season.”