One is a first-generation Lithuanian-American from Illinois who’s all of 20 years old and working through the labors of being an IndyCar rookie. The other is one of the sport’s old timers, a 45-year-old living legend in his native Japan with two Indianapolis 500 wins bearing his name and a new opportunity to extend his career at one of the series’ perennial underdogs.
On paper, David Malukas and Takuma Sato make no sense as teammates. With one facing everything to learn and the other looking to enjoy his remaining IndyCar years on his own terms, the Dale Coyne Racing newcomers could not have less in common. But somehow, an IndyCar elder approaching his sunset and a kid 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 at the back of their DCR trailer in Road America. “The fact is we born in completely different times.”
Malukas represents something altogether different for Sato. Beyond the obvious age gap – the Tokyo native began his Formula 1 career when his new teammate was approximately six months old – Sato finds himself in a new role of mentor to a promising Indy Lights graduate.
Far removed from the days at Andretti Autosport or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing where his main responsibility was to focus on himself and delivering top 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, for a season-long teammate, David is the first a true rookie for me to have,” Sato says. “Obviously, I’ve got 20 years’ experience in motor racing. I’ve had lots of teammates, but just one that’s a young, up and coming driver, and since we didn’t have much time to spend before the season, we’ve had to really get to know each other at the track. But we seem to be getting on really well.”
The chance to learn from Sato was a big 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 over to Dale Coyne Racing was because we knew Takuma was going to be there,” Malukas says. “And the first time I met him, it was at the Eddie Merlot’s restaurant, and it was amazing. It was like love at first sight. I was at the gym, and he called me and I hopped right over. We took pictures and everything, but we had to keep it all quiet because it was before any announcement was made, so it was very cool.”
Among the most remarkable aspects of this Gen X and Gen Z mashup is how closely Sato and Malukas tend to run in the races. At the most recent round, it was Sato in 15th and Malukas in 16th, and go back one race to Detroit and it was Malukas coming home in 11th and Sato in 13th. Return to May’s Indianapolis 500 and the twosome who ran in lockstep throughout most of the sessions, and on race day, it was Malukas who was first home in 16th, tops among all rookies, and Sato 25th.
The runner-up in the Indy Lights championship is loaded with talent, but it’s safe to say that without Sato’s constant investment in his development, Malukas would not be shadowing the six-time race winner at this point in his rookie campaign.
“Throughout this this whole season so far, he’s given me so many tips,” Malukas acknowledges. “He’s helped me so much. I’ve done stupid things along the way, and he just comes and stops me and says, ‘Right, David, that was stupid.’ And I’m 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’s supporting me and asking me about the setups and wants to try different things. And it’s very cool. The connection that we’ve had as a friendship, it’s definitely grown quite a bit, especially recently. It’s very good.”
From this most improbable Lithuanian-American-Japanese connection has come great chemistry and an infectious enthusiasm that has worked its way throughout the collective DCR-RWR-HMD camp.
“David has got such raw speed and talent, and as I’ve said, he’s a team player and I need to help this guy get up to the speed and ultimately become an asset for the team, because then we can talk the same language in terms of the driving and vice versa,” Sato says. “If I find something good, he’s going to pick it up, and if he’s found something good, I’ll pick it up to make my car faster, and that’s very healthy teammates.”
Malukas adds: “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 just getting there.
“When you walk into some other teams, you look at the engineering room and all the drivers are separated, doing their own deal. But for us, we’ll do our debriefs and all sudden, all the chairs will turn towards each other and we all work together. We trust each other, and for Takuma and I, we know that our driving styles are very similar to the point where we can try different things and then come back to and pick the best bits for the both of us.”
Having slid down to 18th and 19th in the championship, Sato and Malukas have some digging to do over the nine remaining races. Wherever they end up in the final standings, IndyCar’s odd couple will likely be close to each other once the season is over.
“What you get is what you see,” Sato says. “For David, there is no hidden parts. Obviously, he’s trying to prove himself as fast as he can. But instead of being sneaky and keeping something in his pocket and trying to smack down his teammate, we have nothing like that. It’s completely open. Raising the bar for the team: that’s ultimately our goal, so I give him everything I have. And he’s obviously doing extremely well. It’s just really working good and the team really loves it.”