Teenager David Malukas bounced back from a disappointing start to his season yesterday by claiming a dominant victory in today’s second leg of the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by Cooper Tires. Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., led from flag to flag to complete a perfect weekend for HMD Motorsports, with the opening race winner and Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports stablemate Linus Lundqvist chasing him home in second place.
A dramatic battle for third which comprised most of the field for the majority of the 35-lap distance finally fell the way of Devlin DeFrancesco, who repeated his result from yesterday with Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.
Malukas became the sixth different winner during the opening weekend of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder. The first two rounds of the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires were shared by Braden Eves and Hunter McElrea, while Yuven Sundaramoorthy and Prescott Campbell each claimed their first Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship victories.
After being taken out of yesterday’s race following a first-corner mistake from Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, Malukas today lined up one place higher up the grid as a result of claiming his first Cooper Tires Pole Award in qualifying on Friday. Malukas, who finished sixth in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires points table after his rookie campaign in 2019, took full advantage of both his inside front row starting position and his experience by maintaining his lead at the start.
Teammate Lundqvist slotted into second ahead of the top Andretti Autosport qualifier, Robert Megennis. Behind, Alex Peroni, who started eighth for the Carlin team, made a fine early jump by taking a wide line around the undulating Turns 1 and 2 which then translated into the inside line under braking for the slowest corner on the track, Turn 5. He duly emerged in fourth place ahead of Toby Sowery (Juncos Racing) and DeFrancesco, with Benjamin Pedersen (Global Racing Group w/HMD Motorsports) retaining seventh ahead of Andretti teammates Danial Frost and Kirkwood, who had swapped positions in the opening few corners.
As the two leaders made their escape, Megennis had his work cut out to maintain third with a pack of Dallara IL-15s filling his mirrors. It soon became clear he was struggling to maintain the necessary pace, and on several occasions he could be seen locking up his left-front tire under braking for Turn 5. Finally, with just under five laps remaining, the tire let go at the crest of the hill in Turn 2. Sowery, unfortunately, already had committed to trying to make a pass around the high line, but with Megennis struggling to regain control as he understeered wide, DeFrancesco was able to sneak through on the inside of both of them to vault from fifth to third.
By then the two leaders were long gone, with Malukas finally taking the checkered flag a comfortable 6.3895s ahead of Lundqvist to secure his long-awaited maiden victory.
“I took it easy in the beginning so as not to make any mistakes and get it all ruined. As the fuel load went down, I could feel the car really coming in and I knew I just had to take it easy,” said Malukas. “I had a big gap, all I had to do was bring it home. But I felt like Captain America out there, like I could do it all day and just keep pushing more and more! I fell in love with the track, the tires were still there, the car was amazing, I couldn’t do anything but go faster. I only took it easy that last lap.
“This has been a long time coming. By the end of 2019, it felt like a curse, that I just couldn’t get an Indy Lights win. We have the pace this year and could have won yesterday, but I knew I had the pace today. I put yesterday behind me and went for it, and brought it home.”
Lundqvist said, “I tried to minimize the gap to David but I made a small mistake and had to manage the tires, so I stayed where I was and hoped his tires would degrade; but he was just too quick for us today. It was a good weekend overall — a win and a second isn’t bad. We’ll keep our head down and keep pushing, but we’ll leave here pretty proud of ourselves.”
DeFrancesco, Sowery and Kirkwood — who found a way past Frost with a bold outside-line, late-braking move at Turn 8 on the 28th lap — immediately improved their lap times by better than a second after Megennis was obliged to make a pit stop for a new tire, but they still finished more than half a minute behind Malukas in third, fourth and fifth.
Peroni should have been in the thick of that battle but for experiencing a momentary loss of power on Lap 16 which immediately cost him a couple of positions. He nevertheless salvaged sixth, while another puncture for Frost in the closing stages allowed Pedersen to finish seventh, narrowly ahead of Sting Ray Robb (Juncos Racing), from Payette, Idaho, who had overtaken Los Angeles, Calif.-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin (HMD Motorsports) with five laps remaining.
The top 10 was completed by Christian Bogle (Carlin), from Covington, La., who capped a promising debut weekend in Indy Lights by securing his first Tilton Hard Charger Award after having started 13th.
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will return to action later this week with the first two street course races of the season at St. Petersburg, Fla., on April 24-25.