When Indy Lights briefly began last March, the focus was on Kyle Kirkwood. His aim was three Road to Indy titles in a row, there was lots of expectation, but a rapid teenager laid down a marker before the series’ hiatus
David Malukas, a Lithuanian-American dual national, topped what would become the sole session of the 2020 Lights season in St. Petersburg, before its indefinite hiatus and subsequent cancellation. But with that, he and HMD Motorsports, owned by his father, laid down a marker that meant Kirkwood wasn’t necessarily going to have things his own way.
“I tried my best after they cancelled it to [see] if I could get the 2020 championship trophy just because I was the quickest in the one session we had,” Malukas joked on a recent episode of the Formula Scout Podcast.
He went on to add that session gave him a sense of what was to come, and that he wasn’t all that surprised that he came out of the box quickly in 2021. “Well I’d say 50-50, mainly because in 2020 we did have that one practice session in St. Pete and that was kind of a bit of a giveaway to show the speed that we had, because we did end up putting it in first there and I did.”
He went on to add that “going into 2021, it was going in at the same start and we set our goals and expectations quite far at the top there but going in from my side I wasn’t expecting to be that quick from what we had in 2019, but with the team [side] of things, I knew that we were going to be quick just from the team that we had was stellar and everything was on-point here.”
And that was the case this year. For all of Kirkwood’s many strengths as a driver, hitting the ground running in a championship isn’t really one of them, and it was Malukas and his Global Racing Group with HMD stablemate Linus Lundqvist that really applied pressure early on, winning five of the first six races between them – three for Malukas and two for Lundqvist, with Kirkwood taking one in St. Petersburg.
In fact, the first race of 2021 did set Malukas back quite far, after contact with Kirkwood eliminated him. That left a lot of work to do, but he rebounded well to win race two at Barber Motorsports Park, showcasing his title-challenging credentials.
“That first race, it didn’t really hit us too hard because we knew that we were quick there and I think we knew going into the future that we knew that we were going to be quick,” Malukas reflected. “Our expectations still weren’t very high at the time, so I was just still very happy to be where we were. And the first incident with Kyle, and he locked up his brakes at the start and took me out, which was unfortunate with how things ended up at the end of the season.
“But in the photos, there’s actually a photo of me with an advertisement that said ‘bam’, so I thought that was kinda funny. But the bounceback, I don’t think it was in our heads too much. We did the next couple of races and we were consistently there. It wasn’t like halfway into the season that I knew there was a very big chance and we should really focus up and then [moving to] the more stressful side, but still more towards having fun and enjoyment because that’s the most important thing.”
After round three on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course, where Malukas notched up a first and a second with Kirkwood away from the rostrum, the latter started to find the devastating form he has become so familiar with, winning five of the next six races (and Malukas winning the one he didn’t). That included an unusual squirrel-related incident in Detroit, and things continued to look pretty tough as the sole oval event of the year came about.
“Personally, if you told me that we were going to sweep a weekend in this season, I think I would have put Gateway in the absolute bottom, I would not have expected us to sweep it,” Malukas admitted.
“Just because of the bad experiences I’ve had with ovals in the past and it’s like a little battle for me. Back in 2019 we had that big Freedom 100 crash and after that, even in Gateway in 2019 it wasn’t pretty bad but Pro Mazda, Indy Pro [as it’s called] now, USF2000, it was 50-50.”
Malukas’s breakthrough double Gateway win was however overshadowed by tyre wear concerns that led to a mid-weekend format change.
“I never really succeeded well on ovals. But I think officially now that little battle I’ve had with them is over after that performance and I mean personally for ovals it’s more car than it is driver. There’s a lot more that goes into the set-up and that can push the driver and give him the confidence to stay flat in those corners.
“HMD provided me with an absolute beast of a car. I mean, even when Kyle got in front on the second day, I think they did a Hail Mary in qualifying to try to keep up with us, and going into race two I just knew that we had the better car. Being behind him in the first 10 laps, I was like ‘we have this, we have this in the books’ and then I just spent those laps trying to set up that pass and it ended up being an amazing pass, it wasn’t as easy as I was expecting, but it was really fun from my end as well.”
That left Kirkwood with plenty of work to do, and at this point Lundqvist had essentially dropped right out of contention too, so it looked like a straight fight between the pair. Malukas had the pace to continue his form into Portland, setting up a four-race run-in at Laguna Seca (a track Kirkwood traditionally hasn’t excelled at) and Mid-Ohio (a track he usually crushes everyone at).
Kirkwood kept tabs with Malukas in the first Portland race, while he made an audacious double pass to swoop into the lead in the second, keeping honours basically even between the pair. And then, Laguna Seca came around…
“Laguna, if we knew what was going on there, then that gap wouldn’t have been as large as it was, I couldn’t believe…” Malukas said, referring to the race where Kirkwood won by a whopping 26 seconds.
“Nobody understood how it was happening because it wasn’t just their team, it was just him. He was even seconds quicker than his team-mate, so not too sure how that was possible.”
Kirkwood was just as baffled when he made his own appearance on the podcast a few months ago. “I honestly don’t really know,” he admitted. “I wish I did know, because then I could have strung my team-mates along with me and created a buffer between me and Malukas and all the HMD cars and got all the Andretti Autosport cars up front.
“That would have been nice, but for some reason, I was just insanely quick there, and I haven’t been that quick there in the past. It’s not like… I feel a really good track for me is Mid-Ohio, they have similar characteristics being kind of tight, flowy, less elevation, but for some reason, we were just so quick there.
“I’m in the same car as all my team-mates, right? And from the outside I had somebody say it’s not really what you’re doing line-wise or anything like that, it’s just at the point of where I was at under the limit on the tyre because it’s very low-grip track. Jonathan George, who’s a well-known driver coach between all the IndyCar drivers, that’s what he said to me. So I honestly don’t really know why we were that fast, but yeah if we had some answers I wish I could tell you!”
That masterful performance set up a title showdown at Mid-Ohio, with bad weather impending. Malukas knew in the dry that his rival was going to be quick.
“He says it’s like his home track when it’s not really. He’s done so many laps there but in the rain we were really good so I was happy,” the HMD driver said.
“Like Kyle, I haven’t done a lot of rain racing in the Road to Indy series, so I was really happy to end off the season knowing we are quick in the rain. So that, I was also happy with, but I mean all in all, many people said or told or tweeted or said on socials that they weren’t really expecting Kyle specifically to have that much of a competition or even just from me and I think having Kyle in this season and me competing with him has helped my name bolster out there and people being like ‘wow, he’s giving Kyle a run for his money’.”
Ultimately Kirkwood won the war with a low-key (by his lofty standards) fifth place in the finale in the wet, while Lundqvist took the final spoils with a commanding drive, but few started 2021 expecting Malukas to be just 13 points shy at the conclusion of the year. Malukas feels that such a battle has upped the reputation of both.
“I think from Kyle, it’s benefitted [us having] the competition between us. He’s benefitted both of us and the racing that we’ve had, I don’t think I could have done it on that circuit with anybody else. Like that pass at [Gateway], we both gave each other respect and the room to have that great pass and that great race as well. So, all in all, I’m just very happy.”
Malukas was the surprise of the year on the Road to Indy for many, and even he admitted that he was surprised to give the RTI’s most successful driver such a hard run for his money. Kirkwood had plenty of nice things to say too about his rival, as both prepare to step up to IndyCar for 2022.
“Maybe it was 2011, when we ran on the same karting team,” Kirkwood reminisced of his early memories of Malukas. “Super-good family, I’ve known them forever. He’s also quite a bit younger. So he stepped it up having these two years between his last Lights championship back in 2019 to ’21, he’s obviously matured a lot.
“He’s a couple years younger than me, and I think it showed this year and he’s always been fast. But at the same time, he’s made a lot of mistakes in his younger career and now he just doesn’t make mistakes. He was absolutely on it this year and he gave me a lot of pressure, the most pressure I’ve had in my car career, that’s for sure.”
One element of Malukas’s strength certainly came from the strength of his team-mates. While Nikita Lastochkin very much was more of a gentleman driver, if you will, the GRG with HMD pairing of Lundqvist and Benjamin Pedersen proved to be crucial to Malukas’s growth as a driver.
“So I come from 2019 where there was a period in time where, also I think just before the whole Road to Indy series, I never really had a team-mate to work off of. This year was the biggest showing in what team-mates can do and how much more you can gain from having them through the few sessions that we have during a race weekend and I think it’s been huge.
“I think there’s also a bit of competition on who can be the number one in the team and all-in-all that just helps all of us altogether and we all have different set-ups and by the end we all help each other to find the absolute best and we all go in at the same set-up, and that’s how we get these results.
“Portland, for example, that was a huge team effort, and without having all these team-mates there I don’t think we would be as far up as we were. And looking through Linus’s data and Ben’s data, all our braking shapes were very similar to each other, so that was also a big bonus on top of it.”
It was clear that HMD was incredibly strong, and it joins Malukas in stepping up to IndyCar with Dale Coyne Racing in 2022.
Of that, Kirkwood said: “They’ve got a lot of experience from the entire Indy Lights paddock; they’ve had guys from Juncos, from Belardi, from Carlin in the past, guys from Andretti, so they were able to string together tonnes of information which is what helped them the most this year.”
But Kirkwood too drove for a very strong team. Andretti traditionally has been the team to beat in Lights, as he explained.
“They’re such a big powerhouse team. For instance, we can pull information from the IndyCar side. It’s pretty similar from the Lights car to the IndyCar, so we were able to pull a lot of information from the IndyCar side for tracks like Detroit where we haven’t even driven the car around. So a lot of the success, it comes from the magnitude of the team, as it is and they’ve got amazing engineers there and a big quantity of them as well.”
For Malukas and HMD, taking it to the IndyCar and Lights juggernaut only proved to give everyone extra encouragement this year. “If anything, going against a big name like that motivated everyone in the team that we really wanted to prove ourselves and show our worth,” Malukas said.
“And us going against them just enhanced that by ten-fold. Everybody was on their A-game every session, every practice, every quali, to make sure that everybody would work as hard as possible to get the car as it was. For most of the races we had the upper hand on Andretti and I’m so happy because I know everybody at HMD works their butt off and they want to make sure we do get a win and we got a lot more than just one.”
Malukas could be next on Coyne’s ‘very impressive rookie’ list, following in the immediate footsteps of reigning IndyCar champ Alex Palou and Andretti-bound super rookie Romain Grosjean, while Kirkwood has been snapped up by the great A. J. Foyt to try to somehow turn his team’s fortunes around and succeed where many great drivers have not. They may not see each other too regularly on the track next year with the performances of their respective packages.
But while Kirkwood achieved the remarkable feat of three titles in a row on the Road to Indy ladder, Malukas really made a good name for himself this year and proved that he’ll be part of this ever-impressive crop of young drivers making their way into IndyCar. Anyone else having flashbacks of Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta back in 2018? Those two have gone on to be pretty decent, haven’t they?