IndyCar: 'Harsh' decision appears more justified as time passes

Nobody liked Arrow McLaren's decision to release David Malukas before he made a single IndyCar start. Unfortunately, it was a move that needed to be made.
Theo Pourchaire, Arrow McLaren, IndyCar
Theo Pourchaire, Arrow McLaren, IndyCar / Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Arrow McLaren took a lot of heat for their decision to release David Malukas after he missed his fourth race to start the 2024 IndyCar season amid his prolonged recovery from a wrist surgery he underwent following an offseason mountain biking injury.

The team were coming off of a race in which none of their three drivers finished inside the top 20, and the No. 6 Chevrolet car which Malukas had been slated to drive this year still has not yet recorded a single top 10 finish this season.

So the idea that uncertainty over Malukas' status, which is still up in the air as we speak, was part of the problem was seen as a bit harsh.

David Malukas release: harsh but fair?

Malukas was signed by the team in free agency after two impressive seasons with Dale Coyne Racing. As a rookie, he recorded three top 10 finishes, including a podium finish, en route to a 16th place finish in the championship standings, and his average finish was 14th.

Alex Palou's statline as a rookie with Dale Coyne Racing in 2020 was the exact same, and he is now a 10-time race winner and a two-time series champion with a top-tier team in Chip Ganassi Racing.

Malukas recorded another podium finish, a fourth place finish, and another four top 10 finishes in his second year in the series before signing with Arrow McLaren, and he never got a chance to compete behind the wheel of one of the papaya-colored cars.

It was absolutely a harsh decision by Arrow McLaren, and the team noted that it was a tough decision to make. The latter sentiment was questioned, given the fact that Malukas was released immediately after missing his fourth race. But at the end of the day, it was a business decision, and it was a decision that they unfortunately needed to make.

It's not like Arrow McLaren altered his contract to release him. There was indeed a clause in his contract -- and presumably the contracts of other drivers tied to the organization, not just the IndyCar team -- that allowed them to release him after four missed starts to begin the 2024 season.

Keep in mind, the initial belief was that he would only miss the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida and the exhibition race at the Thermal Club. He was expected to return for the race on the streets of Long Beach, California, but he ended up missing both that race and the following weekend's race at Barber Motorsports Park before his release was confirmed.

Whether or not the Thermal Club race should have counted is immaterial; sure, it was not a points race, but it still qualified as a race under the terms of the agreement. He would have missed a fourth points race anyway at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course this past weekend.

I'm sure that if Malukas had a clear timetable on a recovery, there would have been some additional flexibility. Even he was skeptical about being able to return in time for race number five at the Indianapolis road course, and as it turned out, he would not have been able to pull it off, even if he had not been released.

It has since emerged that he also would not have been ready in time for the Indy 500 at the track's oval later this month, and he obviously did not take part in the open test at the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Speedway, Indiana oval in April.

Callum Ilott, who is set to drive the No. 6 Chevrolet in that event after standing in for Malukas twice earlier this season, replaced him during that test.

At the end of the day, naming a full-time driver for the No. 6 Chevrolet became the team's priority, and the indefinite delay in Malukas' recovery simply did not allow them to do that without cutting ties with him completely.

Arrow McLaren's decision was not easy

They have since announced that, aside from the Indy 500, Theo Pourchaire, who has made three appearances behind the wheel of the No. 6 Chevrolet this season, is set to drive the car full-time throughout the rest of the season.

They could not make a full-time driver announcement of any kind with Malukas still under contract with the team and unable to compete.

What would have happened the moment Malukas was cleared? Unless they were operating on a race-by-race basis, which they clearly had no intention of continuing to do (nor were they obligated to do so), now Pourchaire would have been out of a ride.

Arrow McLaren would have taken further criticism for announcing a new full-time driver, only to replace him with the original full-time driver once the latter was back and ready to go.

An unfortunate situation altogether became an even bigger lose-lose situation the longer it played out, so Arrow McLaren made the necessary decision as soon as they could. It wasn't like they were foaming at the mouth to get rid of Malukas, as it may have initially appeared.

Could you argue that the team should have at least kept some ties with Malukas throughout his recovery process, regardless of how long it took, given the fact that they stated on multiple occasions that they "supported" his recovery?

Absolutely, and I think that's where a lot of the post-release frustration came in from fans.

But it's not as easy as simply setting aside a ride for him when he returns, whether that happens later this season or in 2025. They needed clarity, and there simply wasn't any to be had, even for as long as they had waited. Even now, there isn't much clarity surrounding the health of the 22-year-old.

McLaren contract history drives fan frustration

It certainly stands to reason that a partial source of the frustration over Malukas' release was McLaren's history of releasing drivers from their contracts early. Had this been any other team, it probably would not have generated quite as critical of a reaction.

Whether it's their IndyCar team with James Hinchcliffe in 2019 or Oliver Askew in 2020 or their Formula 1 team with Daniel Ricciardo in 2022 -- and the organization as a whole when it came to the idea that IndyCar's Palou actually had a chance to join the Woking-based team in Formula 1 in 2023 -- there has been a lot of contract management which many may not consider "doing right by their drivers".

And, of course, there was certainly an added sense that, given how quickly they pulled the plug on the night he missed his fourth race, Malukas wasn't actually their top free agent target last year after they found out that they would again miss out on Palou; Ilott simply was not on the market yet, as he wasn't released by Juncos Hollinger Racing until after Malukas was signed.

But at the end of the day, they made a decision that they felt was in the best interest of the team, and the fact that Malukas' recovery is still ongoing only further justifies their desire to name a new full-time driver of the No. 6 Chevrolet when they did.

The best way to put it is this: two things can be true. Malukas indeed got a raw deal; I don't think there is anybody doubting that, even now. But Arrow McLaren made a necessary decision that was perhaps criticized a lot more than it needed to be. It was a business decision, of course, but looking back, it was even more than that.

It should be noted that Malukas clearly still has respect for the organization, including advisor and former Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan.

Kanaan is said to have played a major role in the team making the decision to sign him, and he voiced his support for the Chicago, Illinois native throughout this challenging process.

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Malukas has established himself as a fan-favorite since emerging as a promising IndyCar rookie in 2022, and the sport's fanbase is collectively hoping that he can find another landing spot and bounce back from his latest setback. Now everybody is waiting to find out where that might be and when that might happen.