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Opinion
IndyCar Indianapolis 500

The Indy 500 non-qualifier who provided a glimpse of IndyCar's future

OPINION: Nolan Siegel came up short in a daringly spectacular last-gasp run to make the field of 33 for the Indianapolis 500, but his performance showcased the foundation for a bright future

The phrase “just send it” is common among drivers, but the reality is very few have the courage to push through a corner at nearly 240mph without lifting, once something feels imperfect with the car.

And they can’t really be blamed for that as one could imagine it is terrifying should something go awry at those speeds; if there is even enough time to feel fear in the moment.

At 19 years old, Nolan Siegel came into his maiden attempt to qualify for the Indy 500 with the demeanour and poise of a veteran making his 10th appearance. A respectable build-up, despite rain limiting valuable track time, was derailed after he went airborne and crashed when the boost was turned up for Fast Friday. The primary car, designed specifically for the 2.5-mile oval, was scrapped and Dale Coyne Racing (DCR) was left prepping the back-up car that raced on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course layout just days prior. 

The difference between the two chassis was nearly a full 4mph. Yet, even with that, Siegel and the team continued to press on and found themselves with a fighting opportunity in the Last Chance round against Graham Rahal, who had been bumped from the field last year by then-team-mate Jack Harvey, now part of DCR in a coaching role opposite of driving selected races.

Siegel was the first to make a run with a 229.566mph four-lap average but dropped a spot after team-mate Katherine Legge managed 230.092mph. After Marcus Ericsson, the 2022 Indy 500 winner, jumped to 32nd with a four-lap pace of 230.027mph, it bumped Siegel out of the field – and Rahal to 33rd – with only a couple of minutes remaining.

“I wasn’t going to go home because I lifted"

Primed as the last to go out, leaving Rahal without a chance to defend, Siegel ran an opening lap of 229.288mph. Pushing for every ounce of speed, he fully committed into Turn 1 on his second lap and glanced the wall on the exit of the corner, sending him into a spin before hitting the Turn 2 barriers.

“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.”

The valiant effort portrayed encapsulated everything desired in a racing driver. And it was noticed by many of Siegel’s peers, including Rahal.

“I've got a tremendous amount of respect for Nolan,” Rahal said. “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.”

Charlie Kimball, a 10-time starter of the Indy 500 who was in a multi-role (consultant, strategy, driver coach) with DCR, saw something special in working with Siegel all month that was encapsulated with his qualifying performance.

Nolan Siegel, Dale Coyne Racing Honda

Nolan Siegel, Dale Coyne Racing Honda

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

“The pressure of that, and you've got to go out to perform and know that that could be your only shot and you may not get a chance if someone goes quicker to rebut it,” Kimball said.

“The mental fortitude and the composure to go run those four laps like he did, you saw an Indy 500 champion [Ericsson], the guy who finished second last year, not have that same mental strength and make a mental error on lap four [in his first attempt].”

And the respect for Siegel has extended throughout the paddock. “I have heard from a lot of different corners of the series - from broadcast to tech, to other teams, other drivers, engineers, how impressive he was in not only his approach, but then also how he handled the pressure and then also how he handled the disappointment,” Kimball said. “He struck the right note all the way through.”

The unique aspect of this outcome is that Siegel is still competing full-time in Indy NXT, IndyCar’s developmental series where he sits second in the championship standings. He is only stepping up in a partial capacity to IndyCar this year, with only one of his four scheduled starts remaining (Toronto).

Still hope for Siegel's Indy 500 bid?

To add another layer to this dynamic, though, is that Siegel also had 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, currently the sporting director for Arrow McLaren, on his timing stand in a consultant role alongside Kimball during the final day of qualifying. That came together due to the fact that Siegel is set to contest next month’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with United Autosports, which is owned by McLaren CEO Zak Brown.

So, although unlikely, it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities to see Siegel called upon if poor weather creates circumstances that pull 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson out of the #17 Arrow McLaren that is co-owned by Rick Hendrick. And that comes due to Siegel being the only driver qualified by current IndyCar rules to fill that role – instead of Kanaan, a 21-time starter of the Indy 500 that was tabbed as the reserve driver – due to going through the rookie orientation and refresher programmes.

However, that far-fetched scenario is likely the furthest thing from Siegel’s mind. What is certainly there is the inconsolable feeling of what transpired.

I wish we could have shown that we deserve to be in the 500,” Siegel said. “Really the whole event has been difficult, but we've had a difficult couple of days, and we pulled through it as a team. We did everything we possibly could. I feel like we maximised the runs. I mean, that's all you can do.

“I guess I hope that everyone saw that we as a team did everything that we could possibly do.”

Everyone did, and now we’re all left to wait for the promising and fearless future to come.

Watch: Indy 500: Newgarden paces intense post-qualifying practice at 226.238mph

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