IndyCar 2022 preview: Meet the six rookies and their collection of diverse backstories
Well before he joined the class of 2022 rookies, David Malukas was racing against the stars of the NTT IndyCar Series.
As a child and in his imagination on a hoverboard around his living room.
“I was pretending to be racing with these drivers,” Malukas, 20, told NBC Sports. “Fast forward a few years, and now we will actually be racing with IndyCar legends, and it is a surreal feeling. It will be really interesting to see where we are with them. But whatever happens, if we’re great, if we’re bad, I am just so happy to be in the IndyCar field racing with them. It is just incredible.”
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It’s enough to leave the Dale Coyne Racing rookie speechless when he recently met six-time series champion Scott Dixon, whom he raced against the most in his make-believe world.
“He was really friendly, talking to me like we’ve been friends for the past years and he just says,’ ” Malukas said. “I kind of just sat there and nodded my head and just nothing really came out of my mouth. And then I turned around, and I was like, ‘That was Scott Dixon!’ It was very cool.”
Kyle Kirkwood, who edged Malukas for the Indy Lights championship last season, is feeling similar vibes as he heads into his rookie season with A.J. Foyt Racing.
“It’s intimidating driving with, with the guys that I grew up watching,” Kirkwood, 23, told NBC Sports. “I watched all the Indy 500s and those guys that won it and did really well, and I’m racing against now. So it is intimidating knowing how much they experience they have and how much I looked up to them. Being able to race against them this year is something almost surreal.”
With Malukas and Kirkwood comprising a diverse freshman field of six drivers, there could be many such “pinch-me” moments in IndyCar this year.
Here’s a look at the rookies in the NTT IndyCar Series for 2022:
Hometown: Bogota, Colombia
Team: A.J. Foyt Racing (street and road course races)
How she got here: Calderon has the most varied background as the oldest of the first-year drivers, having raced Super Formula in Japan, prototypes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and World Endurance Championship and single-seaters in the F2 and F3 ladder series to Formula One (where she also was affiliated as a test driver for Alfa Romeo).
But her open-wheel career actually began 12 years ago in the United States with the Star Mazda Series (as a teammate to Conor Daly). “I’ve never been afraid of new challenges,” she told NBC Sports. “You have to go step by step and learn the way things are in these very tough championships.”
She discovered a love for racing at around the same time that fellow Bogota native Juan Pablo Montoya, her racing hero, began racing in F1.
“It came really natural, and I think my sister is to blame because she took me to a rental go-kart track near our house,” Calderon said. “We bought a five-minute ticket, and I fell in love with the speed and adrenaline. We were actually going there every day after school, and that’s how it really started. It was pure passion and I think love at first sight. This love for the sport just grows every day, basically.”
Facing a challenge of getting comfortable with new tires and tracks, her goal is to fight for top 10s during her first season as she becomes the first woman in eight years to race regularly in IndyCar.
Quotable: “When Montoya was in Formula One, we were waking up at whatever time the race was on to follow him, and since then, I had it in my mind quite clear that I wanted to be in the most competitive championships in the world. And it was more about convincing my parents that I wanted to do it professionally. So it took a few years to, to get it all sorted, but I’m really happy I pursued that passion.”
Team: Andretti Autosport
How he got here: The story begins early for DeFrancesco, who weighed 1 pound and was given last rites when he was born at 25 weeks at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto. DeFrancesco still works on charitable projects with a foundation at the hospital, which recently opened a wing for premature births.
“My mom was always sort of telling me I’m lucky to be around,” DeFrancesco told NBC Sports. “Somehow I’m still here, and I’ll always be grateful to the team of doctors and nurses that saved me.”
DeFrancesco rose quickly through the karting ranks and then into the Road to Indy with Andretti Autosport in 2020. He finished second in the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 standings and then had nine top-five finishes as an Indy Lights rookie last year.
2️⃣2️⃣ years ago I "jumped the start" – arrived into this world 15 weeks early!— Devlin Defrancesco (@DevlinDeFran) February 21, 2022
Thankful for my family's support to get me to this amazing week for my @FollowAndretti / @Follow_SRacing @IndyCar debut
▶️ Race preview: https://t.co/FO79xJoecH
-#INDYCAR | #AllAndretti | #BornFast pic.twitter.com/xkfz6rTkhm
DeFrancesco’s promotion to IndyCar drew a supportive tweet from former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who has a connection through a sponsor of DeFrancesco that specializes in psychedelics. DeFrancesco, who lives in Miami, had dinner with Tyson last September in Los Angeles.
Quotable: “Boxing is actually quite similar to motorsport in a couple of ways. I actually am training at a boxing gym in Miami for about a year now. The training when you’re in that mindset and in a rhythm, I’d say there is some overlap. Having discussions with (Tyson) about his youth and upbringing and his competitive spirit, I definitely see crossover. So yeah, he definitely gave me some advice just in general.”
Hometown: Cambridge, England
Team: Juncos Hollinger Racing
How he got here: After targeting Formula One as a career destination, IndyCar emerged as an option for Ilott while watching Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 debut in 2017. “That sparked a little interest,” he told NBC Sports.
The curiosity was renewed by Romain Grosjean’s success as a rookie last season while Ilott’s pathway to F1 became more difficult despite joining the Ferrari Driver Academy and finishing runner-up in the 2020 F2 championship with three victories.
“The last two years I was on the edge of a seat in Formula One,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of the guys I beat ended up taking those seats. That’s life.”
Helped by sharing management connections to Grosjean, Ilott brokered a deal for three races last season with Juncos Hollinger Racing and a full-time ride in IndyCar for 2022.
He plans on following Grosjean’s footsteps off the track, too, with plans to rent an RV to tour America (Ilott wants to see Yellowstone and other national parks).
Quotable: “There were a couple of routes to take and it seemed for me that to continue single seaters, IndyCar was the best option. Seeing the enjoyment on Romain’s face last year, it’s a spectacle. It’s one of the only championships other than F1 that’s a pro single-seater championship. It’s no surprise why people enjoy this series.
“What’s incredible is the potential. Everyone knows the Indy 500, not as many people know races outside. I want to bring as much of that as I can to get people in Europe to know this series. I want to be part of that long-term vision of this championship expanding outside the U.S. There’s so much commercial value and opportunity here, it’s amazing. Coming from England, a lot can be achieved here.”
Hometown: Jupiter, Florida
Team: A.J. Foyt Racing
How he got here: The son of a semipro soccer player, Kirkwood started go-karting as a hobby from a family “with no racing background whatsoever.” He quickly turned heads when he began racing at 7 and winning national and international championships.
After switching to cars in 2015, he quickly advanced through numerous series with victories and championships. In 2018, he won 27 of 31 starts with titles in the F3 Americas and U.S. F2000 series. Last year, he won 10 of 20 starts in taking the Indy Lights championship for Andretti.
“Every single season I’ve gone into, I knew I would need to win,” Kirkwood told NBC Sports. “And that was just what I did for five seasons. So I’m maybe a little bit lucky. I’ve kind of had the stars aligned in multiple ways. And I’ve ultimately ended up in, in a seat in IndyCar with the No. 14, which I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Kirkwood also has competed in sports cars, making two starts in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. With Indy Lights sidelined by the pandemic in 2020, he raced in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Vasser Sullivan and also ran the Prototype Challenge. He said the experience has helped prepare him for pit stops and conserving fuel and tires during his rookie season with A.J. Foyt Racing.
Quotable: “I’m going to approach the season kind of the same way I’ve approached every single season and not having too much expectations, but at the same time, just push myself to do as well as I can. Even though I see Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan or Will Power, all the guys that I watched growing up, they’re just objects on the racetrack and somebody I’m trying to race. I’ve got to learn new tendencies between all these drivers, but I’m really looking forward to it.
“This year, the primary thing is going to be progression, and I just want to just build on it the entire season. And hopefully as a season progresses, we get into top 10s, top fives and even some podium finishes. We already have a very good chemistry between the team and I, and I think it’s going to be a great season.”
Hometown: Hedensted, Denmark
Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
How he got here: A chance to test at Barber Motorsports Park last year arose for the Alpine Academy prospect whose focus always had been Formula One.
Lundgaard, who was in the midst of a winless season in F2, agreed to the opportunity without any expectations of racing IndyCar, just the prospect of experiencing a different car. But the test went well enough for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to offer a quasi-tryout in last August’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
“I wanted to do the race because I felt it would be a good experience and help for the future, and I can now confirm it did because it’s the reason why I’m here,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports. “It’s actually a bit of a strange one because it wasn’t supposed to happen, but it ended up happening, which I’m now very grateful for. To be honest, it was my last and only option to be able to race in 2022, looking at how the season in Europe was going.”
Lundgaard has expectations he “should be able to replicate that weekend throughout most of (the 2022 season)” but also improve for top-10 results.
Quotable: “I’m honestly extremely excited because it’s something completely new. You can start fresh on everything. All your weaknesses, you can improve. You won’t have a memory of whatever. Well I will, but (the media) won’t. You won’t know whatever I’ve been through. So for me, I can start as a new Christian Lundgaard over here. And that’s what I’m aiming to do.”
Team: Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports
How he got here: After an inauspicious big-race debut in go-karts (“we got black-flagged because I got lapped three times within four laps”), Malukas eventually went on a winning streak through several major U.S. series. His breakthrough came with the X30 championship at the famed Le Mans circuit in 2015.
“That was kind of what ended up blowing me up,” he told NBC Sports. “And from that day on is kind of when I knew that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
After rising through open-wheel ranks in Europe and the Middle East, Malukas returned to the Road to Indy in 2017 and began racing in 2018 for the HMD Motorsports team owned by his father, who immigrated with Malukas’ mother to the United States from Lithuania.
“My dad was in love with racing ever since he was a kid,” Malukas said. “Once the Soviet Union collapsed in ‘91, he ended up going to America to live the American dream, and they came here with just pennies and built their own trucking company.
“And now he’s honestly more excited than I am, and he lives his racing dream that he wanted as a kid through me, and he gives me all the support so he can give me what he couldn’t have. And for that, I’m very grateful. So to have somebody so close to me and also love racing, it means a lot. And he’s always going to be with me every step of the way.”
While partnering with Dale Coyne Racing on Malukas’ IndyCar ride, HMD Motorsports also will remain in Indy Lights after winning the 2021 team championship.
Quotable: “Hard work is what I learned from my dad. Going through the steps of the Road to Indy ladder, he didn’t have to go through it. We could have just been funded myself as my own driver and went to another team. But we took these steps in making our own team because of the passion that we had, and there was so much hard work to keep the team together and to put so much more stress on top of him. And it’s only because of the passion that he has, and I really want to learn from him and do what he has done.”