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How IndyCar’s odd couple is finding their groove

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One is a first-generation Lithuanian-American from Illinois who is 20 years old and going through the tribulations of being an IndyCar rookie. The other is one of the sport’s veterans, a 45-year-old living legend in his native Japan with two Indianapolis 500 wins named after him and a new opportunity to extend his career as one of the series’ perennial underdogs. .

On paper, David Malukas and Takuma Sato make no sense as teammates. With one facing it all to learn and the other looking to enjoy his remaining years of IndyCar on his own terms, the newcomers to Dale Coyne Racing couldn’t have less in common. But somehow, an old man from IndyCar approaching his twilight and a boy just out of his teens have become the series’ odd couple, forming a strong bond that’s as surprising as it is mutually beneficial.

“I mean, you’re not wrong at all,” Sato tells RACER as he and Malukas stand in the back of their DCR trailer at Road America. “The fact is that we were born in completely different times.”

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Malukas represents something completely different to Sato. Beyond the obvious age difference – the Tokyo native began his Formula 1 career when his new teammate was approximately six months old – Sato finds himself in a new role as mentor to a promising Indy Lights graduate.

A far cry from the days at Andretti Autosport or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where his main responsibility was to focus on himself and deliver the best results for the team, Sato’s move to DCR in the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Honda came with added expectations. .

“I think other than Conor Daly, who was a rookie with me at the Indy 500, as a teammate all season, David is the first true rookie I’ve got for myself,” Sato says. “Obviously I have 20 years of motorsport experience. I’ve had a lot of teammates, but only one who is a promising young driver, and since we didn’t have a lot of time to spend before the season, we had to get to know each other a lot on track. But we seem to get along really well.”

Sato has had many teammates over the years, but Malukas is the first full-time rookie he has been paired with. Images by Michael Levitt/Motorsport

The opportunity to learn from Sato was a huge draw for the Malukas family, who signed a multi-year deal with DCR to field the No. 18 HMD Motorsports Honda.

“One of the main reasons we came to Dale Coyne Racing was because we knew Takuma would be there,” says Malukas. “And the first time I met him, it was at the Eddie Merlot restaurant, and he was amazing. It was like love at first sight. I was in the gym, he called me and I immediately jumped. We took pictures and everything, but we had to keep it a secret because it was before any announcements were made, so it was great.”

Among the most notable aspects of this Gen X and Gen Z combination is how close Sato and Malukas tend to run in races. At the most recent round, Sato was 15th and Malukas was 16th, and going back a race to Detroit, Malukas was coming home 11th and Sato was 13th. Let’s go back to May’s Indianapolis 500 and the duo that ran in unison for most of the sessions, and on race day, it was Malukas who came home first in 16th place, the best among all rookies, and Sato in 25th place.

The Indy Lights championship runner-up is packed with talent, but it’s safe to say that without Sato’s constant investment in his development, Malukas wouldn’t be following the six-time race winner at this point in his rookie campaign.

“Throughout this whole season so far, he’s given me a lot of advice,” Malukas acknowledges. “He has helped me a lot. I’ve done stupid things along the way, and he just comes over and stops me and says, ‘Okay, David, that was stupid.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know, that was definitely stupid.’ But that’s one of the things I love about him. He really wants to help me. And he supports me and asks me about the settings and wants to try different things. And he is very good. The connection we’ve had as a friendship has definitely grown quite a bit, especially recently. He is very good. “

Out of this unlikely Lithuanian-American-Japanese connection has come a great chemistry and contagious enthusiasm that has made its way throughout the collective DCR-RWR-HMD field.

For Malukas, the opportunity to learn from Sato was a big factor in the decision to sign Coyne. motoring images

“David has great speed and talent, and like I said, he’s a team player and I need to help this guy get up to speed and ultimately become an asset to the team, because then we can speak the same language. in terms of driving and vice versa,” says Sato. “If I find something good, he’ll pick it up, and if he finds something good, I’ll pick it up to make my car faster, and that’s very healthy teammates.”

Adds Malukas: “It’s been learning that connection between Takuma and the team here, from the engineers and mechanics, and trying to get that connection going. As the season goes on, we’ve been getting better and better and that connection is only just coming.

“When you go into other teams, you look at the engineering room and all the drivers are separate, making their own deal. But for us, we’ll do our reports and all of a sudden all the chairs will turn toward each other and we’ll all work together. We trust each other, and Takuma and I know that our driving styles are very similar to the point where we can try different things and then come back and pick the best things for both of us.”

Having dropped to 18th and 19th in the championship, Sato and Malukas have to do some digging for the remaining nine races. Wherever they end up in the final standings, the IndyCar odd couple will likely be close once the season is over.

“What you get is what you see,” says Sato. “For David, there are no hidden parts. Obviously he is trying to prove himself as fast as he can. But instead of being sneaky and putting something in his pocket and trying to hit his teammate, we don’t have any of that. He is completely open. Raising the bar for the team – that’s ultimately our goal, so I’m giving it everything I’ve got. And he’s obviously doing very well. He is really working out well and the team really loves him.”

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