Nolan Siegel Jack Harvey

The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge was a unique situation for INDY NXT by Firestone points leader Nolan Siegel.

On one hand, the 19-year-old made his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut driving the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda. This was the first of four events Siegel is contracted to race with the team. The other three: the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 21), 108th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge (May 26) and the Ontario Honda Dealers Indy Toronto (July 21).

On the other hand, The Thermal Club weekend offered a plethora of track time for Siegel, with nine combined testing hours. The only time Siegel previously was behind the wheel of INDYCAR SERIES machinery was a test session for Dale Coyne Racing in January at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I was at Daytona testing a sports car and didn’t know I was going to drive an INDYCAR SERIES car,” Siegel said. “Dale (Coyne) said, ‘We’re testing next week, can you be in Miami tomorrow?’ I was like, ‘I’ll be there!’

“Brought my seat and showed up. Didn’t quite know what to expect.”

Two months later, he returned to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES for a second opportunity with similar expectations – none.

“It’s funny,” Siegel said. “It’s high pressure in the sense that it’s my first INDYCAR race, and there’s a lot on the line. But at the same time there are no expectations going into it. I had one day in the car. I had the goal to learn as much as I possibly can.”

Siegel qualified 12th out of 14 cars in his group Saturday, lining him up in Row 6 for Sunday’s opening heat race. He was a rapid charger in the eight-lap event, finishing seventh, one spot shy of transferring to the 20-lap Sprint for the Purse.

Experienced hands like Santino Ferrucci, Will Power, Kyle Kirkwood, Sting Ray Robb, Scott Dixon, Rinus VeeKay and Romain Grosjean finished behind Siegel in that heat.

“I wouldn't have believed you,” Siegel said on what he would have said if I told him he’d finish ahead of those drivers in the heat. “But it's pretty cool to hear it that way.”

Siegel felt close in many places to complete the transfer pass on Colton Herta for the sixth and final spot in the main event. But he struggled to get runs in the right spots on 3.067-mile, 17-turn track to get by Herta’s No. 26 Gainbridge Honda fielded by Andretti Global.

“Colton was really disciplined,” he said. “He'd kind of back it up and get a good exit. And at that point, it's not quite enough to get a run. The high speed was where I was catching him, but there's just nothing you can do there.”

The benefit of chasing Herta and seeing his approach to staying ahead of Siegel’s No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda was a great learning experience for the future.

“To be able to kind of see where Colton was making the difference and where he could kind of back it up, he knew where I was quicker, and he knew that there was no way I was going to get by him,” Siegel said. “I learned a lot following him. I don't think he knew he was teaching me, but he taught me a lot.”

Siegel praised the welcoming NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock for being transparent and helpful all weekend. He singled out Dale Coyne Racing driver Jack Harvey, who’s sharing this ride with Siegel this season, for providing excellent mentorship.

While the 19-year-old is the youngest driver in the paddock, just one month younger than Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyffin Simpson, Siegel said his fellow drivers were accommodating to helping his growth.

“People are definitely willing to give me advice,” he said.

Even though he wasn’t among the 12-car field for the main event Sunday, Siegel took plenty of positives from his official debut. He learned as much as possible before his next NTT INDYCAR SERIES start, at Long Beach. That race also will be another first, as it’s a points-paying event, unlike The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge.

“It’s huge for me,” Siegel said. “I doubled my time in an INDYCAR SERIES car. It’s a great experience for me. It would have been pretty cool to make the final, but I think this was as good as we could ask for and really pleased with it.”