Nolan Siegel

It was 2019, and Nolan Siegel sat in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s grandstands at the north end of pit road watching Simon Pagenaud win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

And while so many remember that 103rd Running like it was yesterday, consider this: Siegel was only 14 years old.

Few in this “500” field appear to be on a faster career track than Siegel, who at 19 is tackling this event with the maturity of someone twice his age. He is already an accomplished sports car driver, with a debut in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with United Autosports scheduled for next month. Last year, Siegel competed in 27 races in seven types of cars with six different teams, winning a pair of races in INDY NXT by Firestone.

This month, the youngest NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver is piloting the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, impressing those around him.

“I’m so blown away by him,” said teammate Katherine Legge, who made her first INDYCAR SERIES start in 2006. “For how young he is, he’s so well put together – so mature, so intelligent.”

Said Conor Daly, a 10-time Indy starter with 47 laps led: “I don’t know him well, but he’s very impressive. But we did an event together the other day, and you’re reminded just how young he is. It’s incredible.”

Charlie Kimball was an IMS rookie in 2011, and he has not met a teenager with this combination of speed and professionalism. And remember, Siegel doesn’t turn 20 until Nov. 8.

“He’s an old soul,” Kimball said. “The thing I see is, he’s got a lot of (mental) capacity. There’s a lot of ‘pat your head and rub your tummy’ around here, especially when you’re doing (qualifying simulations). He just says, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ and goes out, practices it and does it.

“It’s a very methodical thought process in how he goes through things, which is great because you need that at IMS. And when people surprise him with (an on-track) move or whatever, it doesn’t surprise him. He just deals with it.”

Siegel watched the 2019 race with his father, Mark, and then-USF2000 teammate Cameron Shields. The night prior, Siegel and Shields had competed at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in their first oval race. Siegel remembers the pre-race pageantry at IMS, especially the flyover and the energy of 33 cars taking the green flag.

The native of Palo Alto, California, has looked at his photographs taken that day, and he remembers what a far-off dream competing in the race seemed.

“I never thought I would be here,” he said.

Siegel still has never been on the grid on the morning of the “500,” and he isn’t sure what to expect when he dons the helmet Sunday, May 26. But he’s starting to realize the magnitude of what he is trying to accomplish.

Siegel experienced traffic on the 2.5-mile oval for the first time Wednesday and admitted trailing a pack of a dozen or more cars required something more of himself. But he felt he did well.

“I got in those packs and thought, ‘OK, I don’t feel super out of place or uncomfortable,’” he said. “Overall, I’m happy with how the car feels and my comfort level and all of the different race situations I’ve been in.

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking (on the oval), but once you get out there it’s still a race car. No, I haven’t done an oval this big, but I’ve done ovals and I’ve driven race cars. It’s the same principles, right?

But on a day when fellow rookie Linus Lundqvist hit the wall in Turn 2 and 2022 “500” winner Marcus Ericsson inflicted serious damage to his car in a crash in Turn 4, Siegel kept his situation in perspective. He knows he is not ready to dance with the best of them yet, and he accepts that.

“Compared to others, we probably need more time,” he said “I think it’s dangerous to feel rushed; you can’t let yourself feel rushed. You can’t do anything before you’re ready for it.

“I think I was thrown into heavy traffic earlier than we would have liked, (but) being thrown into the deep end accelerated my learning, and now I feel comfortable.”

Siegel said he is taking advice not only from Legge and Kimball but also Jack Harvey, a seven-time Indy starter who is driving for Dale Coyne’s team in 14 races this season. Also at Siegel’s disposal are the notes and onboard video of Takuma Sato’s run with the team in 2022.

Still, it doesn’t speak to the challenge Siegel faces at such a young age.

“Yeah, it’s not easy,” he said with a deep exhale. “It’s extremely difficult.

“It’s the biggest race in the world at a track that’s completely different than anything I’ve ever been on, a car that’s different. Yes, it’s a lot of new things. It was hard to know what it was going to be like until I drove, but I feel like yesterday I got really comfortable, and hopefully that continues.”

Siegel’s best lap Thursday – 220.904 mph – ranked 33rd on the speed chart, but the team’s priority is not yet raw speed. He turned 72 laps, upping his career total at IMS to 230 laps. He still has so much to learn.

Legge has no concerns about Siegel learning it.

“He’s doing everything the right way, and he’s obviously had great leadership from his parents,” she said. “He’s smart, and he’s taking all the advice from the team. I really can’t say enough good things about him.”

The 108th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge is Sunday, May 26 at 11 a.m. on NBC, Universo, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.