Stem cell shots and sim rigs: Why David Malukas' future with Arrow McLaren is unclear

LONG BEACH, Calif. – This isn’t what Tony Kanaan signed up for.

Retirement from IndyCar racing – allegedly for good this time, in attempt No. 3 – wasn’t supposed to mean shipping his race seat across the country to have on-hand in case McLaren and Sauber officials couldn't come to terms to clear Theo Pourchaire to make his IndyCar debut in Long Beach.

It wasn’t supposed to mean loaning out multiple sim machines to drivers so the sub-of-the-week could get his feet wet in place of a testing regimen, while the permanent driver (for now, at least) could tinker with it as a tool to test his still-healing wrist.

The 49-year-old, with the faintest of lines under his eyes marking the scant hours of sleep, wasn’t supposed to be told by colleagues ‘You’re working too much’, while he juggles being a doctor's appointment chauffeur, psychiatrist and race team equivalent of an NBA GM for a group still longing for its first Indy 500 victory and series championship.

But that’s reality for Kanaan, Arrow McLaren’s sporting director, who on a good day at a race weekend is a part-time sponsor entertainer, driver coach, team cheerleader and all-around glue-guy. Publicly, the 2013 500-winner and 2004 IndyCar champ still puts on the brightest and bubbliest of faces, but his exasperation behind the scenes is a window into the chaos that Arrow McLaren has been thrust into over the last two-plus months since David Malukas was rolling along on a beginner-level mountain bike track out west and mistook the front brake for the rears, sending team's newest driver over his handlebars in a tumble that left the 22-year-old clutching his left wrist.

“It’s all a lot more complicated than people think,” Kanaan told IndyStar this weekend at Long Beach. “We have a situation with David where we don’t know, and it’s something he doesn’t know and the doctors don’t know. You just go day-by-day.

“But at the same time, you have to be prepared, because you have a huge responsibility to the partners and sponsors. You can’t just tell them, ‘We don’t know,’ because that just can’t be the answer. And all the while, you’re trying to cover your bases while keeping the driver you signed to a contract sane and healthy and not getting depressed or too beat down because he’s out of the car.”

David Malukas (left) remains sidelined from his No. 6 Chevy IndyCar ride as he recovers from wrist surgery, leaving Callum Ilott (right) and Theo Pourchaire to fill-in for Arrow McLaren.
David Malukas (left) remains sidelined from his No. 6 Chevy IndyCar ride as he recovers from wrist surgery, leaving Callum Ilott (right) and Theo Pourchaire to fill-in for Arrow McLaren.

'We’re having to make difficult decisions'

Kanaan won’t say it outright, but you can hear it in his intonations, in the ownership he’s clearly taken in Malukas’ future on- and off-track and the connection the Arrow McLaren sporting director has made with his protégé over his own journey navigating nearly two months out of the car after a heavy crash at Detroit in 2000.

This was his guy. The driver he hand-picked – at least among the ones available – as Arrow McLaren officials, along with McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, scrambled back in August to fill the void left by Alex Palou’s decision not to honor his deal he had signed 10 months prior. And as Gavin Ward said earlier this year, Malukas had quickly become almost uniformly beloved across Arrow McLaren’s cramped, tight-knit shop on the north side of Indianapolis.

The bike crash didn’t change any of that. But all of a sudden, Ward and Kanaan and Brown were having to grapple with a young driver they’d inked a multi-year deal with – presumed to be a one-year deal with team options – and important, lucrative sponsors the team hopes to retain long into the future. What may be best for one was no longer necessarily best for the other, creating a contractual, public-facing, competitive, emotional mess of a problem without any single right answer.

“We’re having to make difficult decisions, and there’s too much uncertainty to speculate, but we’re doing our best and trying to take care of David,” Ward told a select group of reporters Saturday, when asked about the widespread perception that the intricacies of the team’s deal meant it could soon – or could’ve already – boot Malukas from the ride permanently, due to days missed in the cockpit. “We’ve got all the rehab, physio and medical support we can, but at the end of the day, we also have to look after the performance of the team. It’s so hard to know where we’re going to be.

“But the team has been very supportive of David with what is certainly an unfortunate situation. What’s more unfortunate is his injury is much more serious than we thought initially. A big part of our focus has been trying to help him in every way on his recovery, but we’ve also been spending an awful lot of time to make sure we have competitive drivers in that No. 6 car. Unfortunately, it’s a lot of uncertainty in there.”

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Telling from that answer is this: no part of it guaranteed the ride was Malukas’ whenever he heals, no matter how long that takes. With the Long Beach weekend complete, the No. 6’s original driver has now missed 14 days in the car, between testing and three race weekends. Though the team hasn’t formally confirmed it yet, there’s every indication that Pourchaire will be handed the keys to the No. 6 Chevy again this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park after his 11th-place IndyCar debut Sunday where he earned the race’s “Biggest Mover” award after qualifying 22nd.

There’s also reason to think that has long been the plan, after Pourchaire spent two weeks in Indianapolis preparing for his likely debut, after Brown called ex-McLaren F1 team principal and current Sauber Group CEO Andreas Seidl to inquire about Pourchaire’s availability. After down-to-the-wire negotiations, Sauber F1's reserve driver was announced as Malukas’ replacement for Long Beach on load-in day last week, though he would say a day later in his introductory press conference that McLaren had asked about using him for “two races.” In a follow-up, he noted that his participation at Barber was dependent on his maiden performance and Malukas’ health.

Sunday on the grid, though, Malukas’ parents Henry and Daiva told IndyStar that their son was still yet to have the pins, inserted during surgery to stabilize his dislocated wrist and torn tendons, surgically removed – something Malukas told IndyStar at The Thermal Club on March 23 would be taking place within a week.

That’s now scheduled for Wednesday this week, proof that Barber has not been in the cards for some time.

“He’s good with his fingers, but he still can’t move his wrist with those pins in,” his mother said, noting that everything else around her son’s road back is progressing fine – albeit much slower than hoped. His doctors’ initial estimations led to a belief Malukas could have his pins removed the first week of April, and in Thermal, four weeks since his stiches had been taken out, Malukas genuinely believed he’d be racing Long Beach.

His family believes the ligaments have healed – potentially aided by the stem cell shots they said he received during a trip to Panama weeks ago – and rumblings of nerve damage stifling his recovery process are incorrect, they said, though he will forever have screws in his wrist. Should Wednesday’s procedure, along with the accompanying follow-up scans to survey the damaged area, go as expected, Malukas should soon begin a regimen focused on mobility, flexibility and strength in order to get him ready to man-handle a nearly 2,000-pound beast of an Indy car with no power-steering.

Asked if he thought his son could be back in time for the 500, Henry’s answer was both hopeful and bluntly realistic.

“We hope so. But we’ll see.”

A champ without a ride: Theo Pourchaire to make IndyCar debut at Long Beach,

David Malukas will be forced to miss his planned debut with Arrow McLaren at St. Pete next month after undergoing surgery Tuesday to repair a fractured hand suffered in a mountain biking accident.
David Malukas will be forced to miss his planned debut with Arrow McLaren at St. Pete next month after undergoing surgery Tuesday to repair a fractured hand suffered in a mountain biking accident.

Pressure mounts on David Malukas

More than two months into this real-life fever dream, Kanaan says he wakes up every morning from the little sleep he allows himself and immediately tenses up.

“Every morning, it’s like, ‘Give me two fire extinguishers, and whooosh, whooosh, whoosh,'” Kanaan jokes, pantomiming with his hands like your uncle who left the Thanksgiving turkey in the oven a few too many hours. “That’s just the situation we’re in. You hear people say, ‘Oh, why didn’t you announce this or that yet?’ And it’s like, ‘Because we were waiting until the last day to see if (David) would be okay.'”

The complexity of Malukas’ injuries – torn tendons, rather than just a broken hand, wrist or forearm -- has taken what could’ve so easily been a cut-and-dry few-week rehab process and turned it into this messy timetable with three drivers’ futures, sponsors’ collective satisfaction and an Indy 500 bid on the line. Should Malukas’ next couple weeks go swimmingly, there’s a thought that that the Sonsio Grand Prix on the IMS road course May 10-11 could be in play with the help of rigorous strengthening exercises and around-the-clock time on Kanaan’s loaned-out simulator that can replicate – or if needed, tone down – the steering load.

Simultaneously, Pourchaire will continue hopping on one of Kanaan’s other sim rigs daily. His Super Formula schedule allows him to run this weekend at Barber, as well as the IMS road course weekend, if needed, and Callum Ilott, the No. 6 car’s stand-in until Long Beach, frees up immediately after for the start of 500 practice. His sportscar schedule doesn't ramp back up again until June. Just how long Brown, Ward and Kanaan can afford to wait to pull the plug on Malukas’ hopeful return for the 500 is unclear. Of all the tracks on the early portion of the calendar, the 500 is the least taxing physically, though it does require as many as nine days in the car over two weeks.

Two months into recovery: Malukas battling with emotional toll of being sidelined

Last year's Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire made his IndyCar debut last weekend at Long Beach in place of David Malukas and is expected to reprise his role next weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
Last year's Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire made his IndyCar debut last weekend at Long Beach in place of David Malukas and is expected to reprise his role next weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.

And there’s worry, too, about bringing Arrow McLaren’s injured driver back too soon. Whenever – if ever – Malukas straps on that papaya fire suit, the media, social media, fan and peer attention and speculation will be fierce and unyielding. Every move he makes on-track, every lap time he turns in and even the faintest wince or grab of his wrist will be acutely over-analyzed. And if Malukas is slow or stiff or, god-forbid, crashes, the weight will be unlike anything he’s ever felt.

There were reasonable questions in September if he was ready for such a pressure-packed role with a team where only Pato O’Ward has won a race or finished better than 8th in the championship since McLaren joined IndyCar in 2020. Brown holds a reputation as both a passionately loyal and fiercely competitive team executive who will do whatever it takes to win – even if that means cutting ties with a driver he was once in love with.

And so both sides press on, and as the calendar ticks closer to May, uncertainty looms, just as it has since that second weekend in February. The pressure, though, is steadily building.

“You just have to juggle trying not to get anyone’s feelings hurt,” Kanaan said. “This is the most vulnerable time you can possibly be in as a driver, and if you don’t have the right support, it can end your career. We have a lot of money invested (in David), and we have a lot of trust. I’ve got to give the kid the opportunity to get better, but I’m not a doctor – and even they don’t know right now.

“Putting a timeline on it is just going to create more buzz, and that’s why I said, ‘Forget about that.’ Cause as soon as you get back in, all those questions are going to be coming.”

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: David Malukas' future with Arrow McLaren unclear as he misses races