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Siegel leaves Indy with zero but as a budding hero

Written by Archie O’Reilly

As Nolan Siegel takes a seat in front of the media at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following Sunday’s Last Chance Qualifying for the 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500, the teenager from Palo Alto, California is immediately embraced by the veteran driver to his left. There are words of encouragement whispered as the pair engage in a warm handshake.

That driver adjacent to Siegel is Graham Rahal - as gracious and respectful a competitor and sportsman as you will find. 

For the second year in succession, the 35-year-old, driving for his family team, has had to contend on Bump Day. And while he just snuck into the 2024 field in 33rd place, he suffered the same fate that young Siegel is now having to face only one year ago. 

It took guts and bravery for Siegel to be present in the media centre, only an hour or so after his hopes of qualifying for a maiden Indy 500 had ended with a hit of the Turn 1 wall. It said the same thing about his character as the way he bowed out of the event, climbing from his stricken No.18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda machine after leaving everything on the line.

On the outside edge of the field looking in, he could not have given more.

He was either going to end up in the show or in the wall. Nothing else - no lift off the throttle as sketchy as things were to become - would do. And, leaving no stone unturned, that is nothing other than laudable from a rookie driver developed beyond his youthful 19 years.

“I was going to go home because I went flat and did everything I could do,” Siegel said. “I wasn’t going to go home because I lifted.”

This took even more courage in light of events on Fast Friday - rookie Siegel’s first experience of the 100-horsepower boost ahead of qualifying. A late snap into Turn 2 sent him spinning into the SAFER barrier left-front first at over 200 miles per hour, with enough momentum to lift him airborne after a secondary rear hit.

Gratefully, Siegel walked away unharmed and unassisted after a heavy landing that blemished the track surface. But there was a lot of work ahead for his Coyne crew to replace the existing car with the No.18 road and street course car, which would have to be converted into speedway trim. There was also confidence for the IndyCar oval debutant to rebuild.

Coyne have had an uncertain year, not establishing any drivers for the season until days before the season-opener in March. And their cars have not always had sidepods decked out with partners either. These are often the teams that can struggle the most to rebound from big accidents due to lower resources. Even if never through a lack of trying.

Unfortunately, there was every chance that, regardless of the crash, Siegel would have been under threat. His car failed to deliver spectacular speed as he continued to learn the ropes at IMS through weather-interrupted testing and practice time, which naturally left him on the back foot anyway as a rookie.

But the crash compounded the existing lack of speed, seeing him manage a quickest four-lap average in only the 228 mph range in Saturday’s opening day of qualifying as the remaining 33-car field all broke into the 230s. There was not much improvement in the practice session ahead of Last Chance Qualifying either.

To the credit of Siegel, he acknowledged he may have needed some assistance to get back in his groove and enlisted the help of 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan ahead of Bump Day. It spoke to the maturity that Siegel has that he showed the initiative to reach out and also further emphasised the high-class human being that Kanaan is.

Kanaan did not have to oblige. He is working tirelessly as sporting director at Arrow McLaren, heavily assisting Kyle Larson’s maiden Indy 500 campaign. But he acknowledged Siegel was in need of support. And with his role consulting the Coyne driver not involving sharing anything technical, Arrow McLaren creditably allowed Kanaan to accept Siegel’s call.

The camaraderie at Coyne, headed by former IndyCar driver Charlie Kimball on the No.18 stand, was special to observe. After every run, no matter the speed, Kimball would rally around Siegel and give him words of encouragement. 

“We were in this together,” Siegel said. “They wanted it too. It’s not like I was the only one in this. They wanted it as well and they worked really, really, really hard for a long time to make this happen. Everyone did a good job. I know that ultimately the result doesn’t reflect that but they worked really hard. We were in it together for months. It’s like a family.”

Such was the grind put in by Siegel’s team, and himself to build his belief back up after Friday’s accident, they managed to put together their best qualifying attempt in the Last Chance session. Still just short of 230 mph, it may not have been enough. But it was still a stellar effort to find the best part of a mile an hour even from earlier on Sunday.

“I feel like today we did the best we could do,” Siegel said. “As a team we had the best car that we’ve had since we started this whole event. Those were the best four laps I think I’ve done. It felt pretty maximised and ultimately it wasn’t fast.”

Facing the media, he was fighting back some tears. But while the efforts may not have been rewarded with a fast enough speed, they should be rewarded with a feeling of pride that Siegel struggled to acknowledge in the immediate aftermath. Even his veteran competitors were impressed by his mettle and his team’s dedication.

“To have an accident midweek and to get the confidence to come back and just jump right back into the high boost and everything else, it’s not easy at all,” Rahal said. “To go out there and to do what he did and what Dale Coyne did… they found a lot of speed. I don’t think there’s a lot of teams out there that can say they magically found over a mile an hour.”

Siegel was in 33rd and provisionally in the show for a period after Andretti Global’s Marcus Ericsson mistook the white flag for the chequered flag and lifted off prematurely on his first run of Last Chance Qualifying. But after a near session-long wait as Ericsson cooled his machine, the No.28 Honda emerged back out on track and leapfrogged Siegel and Rahal.

There was enough time on the clock for one more run for Siegel, who knew ever since the earlier practice session that it might end up having to be a ‘win it or bin it’ situation in order to try and make it in the field. That took a lot after Friday’s terrifying airborne accident.

After the first lap of his last-gasp run, Siegel was already tracking slower than 33rd-place Rahal’s four-lap average. But he still never gave in and left it all on the table as he struck the Turn 1 wall at the start of the second lap, breaking a toe link and leading to him being a passenger as he made further wall contact and settled against the Turn 2 barrier.

He relievingly rose out of his car promptly to an eruption of applause from the record-breaking qualifying crowd. And again, almost as soon as Siegel had radioed to apologise, the soft-speaking Kimball was on hand to raise his spirits.

“You left it all on the race track, buddy. We are really proud of you.”

The team does now have its No.18 road and street course car to build back up again for Detroit in shortly under two weeks’ time. But will they mind? You cannot imagine they will. You cannot begrudge Siegel’s efforts - it was fitting of the team’s own persistence and an honourable way to bow out. Neither party could have given or shown more.

Being bumped shows very little about a driver. But the way it happens can do. And the way drivers bounce back, as Siegel certainly has the pedigree to do, definitely does.

In 2019, now-multiple race winner Pato O’Ward was bumped to the field as he attempted to make his first Indy 500. In Thursday’s practice session five years ago, the Mexican driver had a crash eerily similar to that suffered by Siegel on Fast Friday this year. He was unable to find the speed to qualify but has since been in contention for a number of Indy 500 wins.

Siegel’s trajectory feels similar and his bumping experience is likely going to be the start of something special if his career continues in the direction it is heading.

“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for Nolan,” Rahal said, sitting alongside Siegel, who he first met around 10 years ago. “I’ll put him on the spot here… He may be a new name to a lot of people, but he’s a name that you are going to become familiar with. 

“He’s won at every level. He’s won at everything he’s done. He’ll be here. He’s going to be winning here. There’s no doubt about that.”

It is almost one year since Siegel put himself on the map with his first Indy NXT victory. He could easily have swept the early June Detroit weekend had he not had a mechanical failure two corners from the end of Race One, though he still rebounded to win the second race. He then took victory at Road America in the next event too.

Siegel made his debut in the premier feeder series on the IndyCar ladder with HMD Motorsports as a 17-year-old in the season-ending doubleheader at Laguna Seca in 2022. And while he was never a champion in USF2000 - where he made his debut at only 14 years old - or USF Pro 2000, he has generally been leaps and bounds ahead of others his age.

Now in his late teens, Siegel has really come into his own in Indy NXT. He finished second in each of the first two races of his first full season last year, taking Rookie of the Year honours with an impressive third-place championship finish. He currently sits second to Jacob Abel after four races in 2024, which includes a dominant victory in St. Petersburg.

And the Indy 500 was not his IndyCar first outing either. Siegel had an initial four-event deal with Coyne, covering the $1 Million Challenge exhibition and Long Beach, then the Indy 500 and, coming up in July, Toronto as these events did not clash with his Indy NXT schedule.

Depending on where he stands in Indy NXT, there could be scope to add two more championship events without Siegel losing his rookie status for 2025, when he is almost certainly going to make the full-time switch to IndyCar, whether with Coyne or elsewhere. 

His two pre-Indy outings were enough to prove he is plenty good enough to make the step.

He finished seventh of 14 in his Heat Race in the Thermal Club exhibition, only missing out on transferring to the All-Star race by less than a second from Colton Herta on debut. This saw him finish ahead of the likes of Will Power and Kyle Kirkwood, plus Scott Dixon after he was penalised for causing an incident at the start.

He ran in Jack Harvey’s No.18 Honda at Thermal before placing in the team’s No.51 Honda for Long Beach, where he qualified last but progressed to a creditable 20th in his first-ever outing on a tight street course in an Indy car. It was another clean, measured weekend with certain flashes of pace.

Failing to qualify for the Indy 500 should not be allowed to damage his reputation. If anything, the valiant manner of his exit should only bolster his standing in the eyes of IndyCar teams when added to the performances in his earlier appearances.

He may leave Indy with zero but this is only the start of a career as a budding hero.

Nolan Siegel, remember the name.


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