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David Malukas’ McLaren story: A tale of motorsport’s brutality

Written by Archie O’Reilly

David Malukas has a Starbucks flask and plate of cookies in hand as he arrives in the conference room to face the media on the first of the NTT IndyCar Series’ annual content days in early January. He is clad in a luminous papaya race suit - so bright that the camera of the remote Zoom stream is failing to focus.

There is a spring in the 22-year-old’s step and a typical smile is etched across his face as he jokes with those in the room. It is a year of new horizons for Malukas, embarking on a fresh journey in his young career as he enters the third year of his stint in IndyCar.

“David Malukas, now driving the No.6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet,” the moderator announces after the initial chit-chat quells. 

Malukas responds with a proud nod of acknowledgement and hint of a smirk.

“You know when you were a kid and everything seemed a little bit brighter?” he poses in his usual buoyant manner. “I feel like putting the papaya on, I have that same brightness back. I see everybody a lot brighter now, so life is good.”

The conversation flows from expectations and challenges, to building relationships and the transition from Dale Coyne Racing to a team with many more resources and names to know.

“We are going for the top - podiums, wins,” Malukas says of his aims. “Going from Arrow McLaren’s side, they’re competitive, they want to be up front, they want to get wins, they want to get podiums and they want to compete with the best and be the best. Going into this season those will also be my goals.”

Malukas found out it was on the table to replace Felix Rosenqvist in Arrow McLaren’s No.6 Chevy as things progressed “quickly” towards completion following the Music City Grand Prix on the streets of Nashville during the first week of August last year. This meant Malukas had to keep the move under wraps for over a month until an announcement at Laguna Seca. 

“I actually enjoyed it,” he said of the period until the move became official during the final race weekend of the season. “I had a good time because keeping it in wasn’t too hard. I’d go online and see: ‘Oh this person is going over here.’ Because I’d also know where the other drivers were going. “I’m giggling in the back like: ‘Hoo-hoo, you don’t know.’”

Initially, it had seemed that Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou was nailed-on to complete Arrow McLaren’s IndyCar lineup alongside Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi in 2024. He was the team’s Formula 1 Reserve Driver and McLaren placed significant funds into an F1 test programme for the Spaniard. 

But when Palou decided not to honour that prospect of racing in IndyCar with Arrow McLaren in the midst of his second championship-winning campaign in three years with Ganassi, CEO Zak Brown and company were left scrambling. And this was on top of yet more legal dispute.

Palou had evidently not seen a clear path into F1 with McLaren and, not illogically, the decision was taken to remain with the team that he was, at the time, en-route to becoming the first driver in nearly 20 years to wrap up an IndyCar title before the final race with. It was a case of a racing driver being ruthless in their bid for the best chance of success.

No further option was ever going to be of Palou’s almost abnormal and history-making calibre, immediately instilling pressure on whoever would assume Rosenqvist’s drive. The Swede - now thriving at Meyer Shank Racing - was probably never going to stay amid the team’s efforts to replace him with Palou on more than one occasion.

Callum Ilott’s name was often touted after an impressive two years guiding more of a minnow team, Juncos Hollinger Racing, from a one to two car operation. But business had to be done early to prevent options dwindling further and, at that moment, Ilott was locked into his deal with Juncos (albeit this relationship later broke down).

And so attention turned to Malukas, who joined the series in 2022 after a runner-up campaign in Indy Lights. The young American finished only 13 points behind the champion and one of the Road to Indy’s most successful products, Kyle Kirkwood, in that sophomore Indy Lights season, winning seven times and finishing on the podium in 16 of 20 races.

After the Palou saga, the reality was that Malukas - or whoever was to end up completing Arrow McLaren’s lineup for 2024 - would not be viewed as ‘first-choice’. That would always invite scrutiny, possibly including revaluation from the team at the end of 2024.

“I just look at it as I have signed a deal with Arrow McLaren, and they are confident in me,” Malukas said in reaction to this in January. “I am confident in myself to get the results.”

Regardless of how the opportunity presented itself, it was one that an open-minded Malukas was ready to embrace as he stepped up from Coyne’s No.18 entry.

“It is a great opportunity,” Malukas said ahead of the 2024 season, “They have a lot of resources. I also have really good teammates, Pato and Rossi. Being 22, I still have some time to learn and it is the perfect place to make sure that for my skills. To get the maximum out of my potential, this is the place to be.”

There was an element of Malukas being somewhat of an unknown quantity with more to prove - and more to learn as he has admitted - as he made the switch to Arrow McLaren. It is always hard to judge drivers at one of the series’ smaller outfits. And there were hints of inconsistency to Malukas, who still managed eight top-10 finishes in 34 events with Coyne. 

Two Leaders’ Circle finishes - 16th and 17th in the championship - will always mark a successful return at one of the lower-resourced teams. And two podiums in two years - both coming on the World Wide Technology Raceway oval - certainly offered a display of the vast potential in Malukas’ arsenal.

“David is right away one of the strongest oval racers already in the series,” Arrow McLaren Team Principal Gavin Ward said upon Malukas’ unveiling. “Looking at relative performance, trying to normalise for teams, that showed very positively over the last two years. 

“Then I think a little bit of just looking at the couple years in IndyCar. That’s a good level of experience. The age, the success in NXT [previously Indy Lights], all the people he raced against... it all points to positive things.”

The grass could not have been greener for Malukas. From beachside announcement footage onwards, his outgoing and bubbly character - extending to moments such as singing on the radio during the race of his first IndyCar podium - was a perfect fit for Arrow McLaren’s grid-topping social media presence during the arduously long off-season.

He has been known to make his own memes as part of his own social media presence, with one memorable video from his time in IndyCar featuring him making his own race winner graphic in anticipation for his first race victory. He does not shy away from interacting with fans either, whether at the track or on social media.

That is why, for so many IndyCar followers, it has been so crushing to see everything come crashing down for Malukas in the past two months.

On 14th February, Arrow McLaren confirmed that Malukas had suffered a dislocated left wrist in a mountain biking accident the weekend prior on 11th February. He underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments on 13th February and an initial recovery timeframe of six weeks was given following the removal of stitches on 22nd February.

This put Malukas in the frame to return ahead of April’s Indianapolis 500 Open Test, meaning he would miss the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and $1 Million Challenge exhibition event. In the meantime, he would have to face the anguish of watching others deputise in his No.6 Chevy as he watched on from the sidelines.

“It’s often how we recover from setbacks and adversity that defines us and our character,” Ward said at the time. “We will do everything we can to support David in his recovery and when he's back on track the success will be all the sweeter.”

But as April ensued and the initial possible return date ensued, it became apparent that Malukas’ recovery was not going as planned.

The team had called up Ilott for both St. Pete and the non-points exhibition event at the Thermal Club given his newfound IndyCar availability. The Briton impressed sufficiently, with headlines including 11th in St. Pete and the topping of one of the test sessions at Thermal, where he also out-qualified O’Ward.

Ilott was impressively competitive alongside his teammates throughout both of the events. And he fact that the team also utilised his services for hybrid and team testing reaffirmed their likely interest in Ilott. He was also in the car for the April Indy 500 Open Test, for which Malukas was not fit to return despite the initial prognosis suggesting he may have been.

Missing testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) was a setback for Malukas, albeit it was curtailed by rain and Ilott ran only eight laps across essentially only a couple of hours of veteran running. But the bigger blow was that he would also be missing the second points-paying round of the season.

Ilott was not available to fill in for Long Beach due to World Endurance Championship Hypercar commitments with Team Jota - a deal signed with no viable IndyCar options on the table at the time of his break-up with Juncos. So Arrow McLaren made a late-notice call-up for reigning Formula 2 champion and Sauber F1 Reserve Driver Theo Pourchaire.

Ward’s statement at this point was not encouraging reading for Malukas’ fans. At a time where he should have been back in the car according to the initial six-week timeframe given for his recovery, the discussion was still about what rehabilitation and strength exercises were actually possible for him. There had evidently been complications causing his recovery to falter.

Again, Malukas had to watch on as a deputy - this time a debutant - performed admirably in his place as Pourchaire went on to finish 11th in Long Beach. 

It was only after Long Beach that Malukas finally got the pins removed from his wrist, meaning being in the car at Barber Motorsports Park the weekend after was an impossibility. Pourchaire filled in again and finished the highest of the Arrow McLaren cars amid a difficult weekend for the team.

This also left Malukas in doubt for the Sonsio Grand Prix two weeks later on the IMS road course.  And nfortunately for Malukas, there are often terms in drivers’ contracts related to only being able to miss a certain amount of races.

The longer he was missing, the more under threat his position naturally became. Absences cause issues with sponsors and trigger unhelpful uncertainty for teams - as shown by Arrow McLaren essentially having to determine those drivers on a race-by-race basis.

To Malukas’ credit, he stayed present at races; he was pictured doing track walks with the team and partaking in autograph sessions. He was also a frequent face on social media and appeared at other events too, including visiting the White House for the annual Easter Egg Roll at the start of April.

As more time passed, more pressure mounted on Malukas as he missed track time both in terms of races and testing. If he was to get in the car, he would likely have been under the microscope and compared to what both Ilott and Pourchaire showed across almost glorified examination periods.

And gut-wrenchingly for Malukas, it quickly moved away from being a case of when he got in the car. One day on from Barber - the third championship race and fourth event he had missed - the team pulled the plug and released the 22-year-old before he had even completed a race.

“The past three months have been challenging,” Malukas said. “I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to drive for Arrow McLaren and regret that it never materialised. I would have loved to have continued representing the team and its partners going forward. They have been good, and I appreciate all they have done for me.

“I’ve done everything possible to speed up the rehab process - treatments, physiotherapy, strength training - but my recovery has taken longer than anticipated. Every injury is different, and everybody heals at a different pace. I’ll turn my full attention to getting back to 100 percent and then prove that I am ready and able to compete to win.”

It is a crushing blow for Malukas, who even moved to Indianapolis from his native Chicago to ensure he became embedded within the team as quickly as possible. But he has proven a victim of the cutthroat business of motorsport.

Would things have been different if he had been in the car when the accident was had? Maybe. But 2019 Indy Lights victor Oliver Askew - winner as a rookie - suffered the concussion that saw his stint with the Arrow McLaren in 2020 team end through being in the car.

There is a perennial debate about sportspeople partaking in any level of extreme sport away from their profession. And it is easy to see why some claim Malukas may have been irresponsible. But he was not said to be doing anything untoward and it genuinely seems to have been an unfortunate mountain biking accident as part of his training.

The fact that Malukas’ commitment to the team was so unwavering despite his injury adds an extra level of harshness to the situation. It was testament to his character that he stayed present throughout, helping the team and ensuring he was making an impact even if not in the car.

A video has done the rounds on social media of Malukas even cleaning the No.6 Chevy that should have been his. He has clearly been so desperate to make an impression and build chemistry with the team. 

“Habits-wise, it’s just trying to get into the shop as much as possible,” he said in January. “I want to be there for the guys. I want to already start building relationships, building that chemistry before the season starts, just try to get in and help and be with the content crew, get to know everybody from my side, looking at onboards.”

This was all to try and get off on the front foot once the season got underway. But that chance will sadly not come.

Malukas has been seen to be a little harsh on himself at times in interviews, as much as he often emanates positivity off-track. So it has to be hoped there is continued support through him this difficult situation, whether from McLaren or otherwise. For a team that prides themselves on togetherness, one would hope they do not just release a young driver into the wilderness.

It is unclear whether the release came as a surprise to Malukas. One would imagine the idea of possibly only being able to miss a certain amount of races had been mentioned to him given it had been floated in public. 

But only two days before news emerged that ties were to be cut, Malukas had replied to a post on X under the illusion he may still have had an opportunity to drive on the IMS road course should he be fit, even if it was “very unlikely”.

Was he in denial or was he unaware?

In any case, by the time Monday post-Barber came around, his social media profile pictures had become a black circle.

The team had often pedalled the line that they wanted to see Malukas back as soon as possible. And if Malukas was not aware that things could end after a certain number of races, then mismanagement could be criticised. But the sad reality is that the team probably had to take the ruthless step to remove Malukas for their own sake.

A lack of clarity race-by-race was unsustainable amid the continued uncertainty as to when exactly Malukas could return. And maybe it could prove beneficial to Malukas to recover without the pressure of needing to rush back into the car.

But that does not make it any less devastating for the human involved.

Some opportunities come, go and in some cases never return. Malukas, at only 22 years old, has a long career ahead and no doubt has enough potential to at least find his way back onto the IndyCar grid. But who knows if an opportunity to drive for a front-runner may arise again - in the near future at least?

The question mark over what he can do at a top team still remains. It will have been gutting to have had an opportunity there - and almost be living that opportunity - but never be able to prove himself on-track barring a few hybrid or tyre testing outings in the off-season.

He wore the papaya and honoured it while out. And the team stuck by his side for a while, supporting him in his recovery. But now both parties have futures to sort out.

The best guess would be that Arrow McLaren may continue to alternate between Ilott and Pourchaire depending on clashing weekends. Ilott will have to navigate WEC commitments while Pourchaire is racing in Super Formula alongside being Sauber’s F1 Reserve Driver.

In the immediate term, Ilott is unavailable for the IMS road course event but would be a logical pick for the Indy 500 off the back of a 12th-place finish with Juncos in 2023. Pourchaire still has to undergo rookie oval tests, albeit he is keen to dabble into that discipline of racing.

Chopping and changing is not ideal but at least the team can now commit to a schedule for the remainder of the season rather than going week by week, providing neither Ilott nor Pourchaire can be bought out of their contracts elsewhere. It could also offer a further chance to evaluate the pair with a possibility of two full-time vacancies in 2025. 

And what about Malukas? What could be next in his IndyCar story?

There was ambiguity in Arrow McLaren’s statement, suggesting he was released “for the remainder of the 2024” season. It is often not disclosed whether a deal is multi-year and there is often an ‘option’ beyond the first season. Whether he could return to the team in the future is unclear but Malukas’ own statement seemed more definite in terms of his exit.

Regardless, Malukas should be sought-after by teams. Even if there is an element of him being an unknown quantity for a top team, his talent has been made clear. Teams should have him on their shortlist, whether to employ him or for family-owned HMD to be involved as they were at Coyne.

Malukas is a very appetising free agent on the market for any openings that may emerge at or even before the end of the season. And he seems to have little doubt that this remains only the beginning of his IndyCar story.

As his refreshed header image on his X profile reads: “I’ll be back.”


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