The newly-rechristened Indy NXT Series has yet to drop the green flag for the first session of its new era. That happens this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, site of the first round of the 2023 season.
Yet, of the 19 drivers that will take the green flag in St. Pete, three of them will arrive in the paddock with their trophy cases fortified, their sleep schedules possibly a bit disjointed, and with rising stock in both the open-wheel and endurance sports car racing communities.
Third-year Indy NXT driver Christian Bogle, sophomore Kyffin Simpson, and series rookie Nolan Siegel all took time in their single seater off-season to race in the Asian Le Mans Series.
The trio raced in the top LMP2 class as part of a record grid of entries that contested the regional championship’s third season under its condensed format – with four races over two weekends, all held in the United Arab Emirates at Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina Circuit respectively.
It was a long, and grueling trip from the U.S. to the UAE for these three young American hopefuls. But for Simpson, the racing pride of the Cayman Islands, the chance to test his racing acumen against the deepest LMP2 field the Asian Le Mans Series has ever seen was just too good to pass up.
“It’s very competitive. There’s a lot of very quick drivers out there,” Simpson reflects in his assessment of his competition. “All drivers that I’m trying to work hard to be as fast as, and all drivers that I hope that I can catch up to in some way – knowing that some of them have raced here before in these cars. And catching up to them in pace and experience, as well.”
Simpson is known first and foremost as a single-seater driver: A champion of the Formula Regional Americas Championship, and a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.
In addition, Simpson has also demonstrated a natural talent for multi-class endurance racing. He ended a partial season in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship with a GTD class win at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in Gradient Racing’s Acura NSX GT3. This year, he’s taken the step up to prototype racing, and in Race 1 at Dubai, he and co-drivers – U.S. Gentleman racer John Falb and Australian Pro James Allen – wheeled their Algarve Pro Racing-entered Oreca LMP2 07 to the overall win.
Allen taking the victory with Algarve Pro Racing just weeks after he snatched the win away from the very same team in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona by 16 milliseconds was the lead story after the race. But those who watched that race from start to finish will know that victory wouldn’t have been possible without a great hour-long shift in the middle of the race from Simpson.
Being able to further develop his natural skill sets as a racer who can climb into a GT, prototype, or open-wheel car and deliver results was something else that drew Simpson towards the Asian Le Mans Series. “I think just driving anything is very helpful in your development as a driver,” says Simpson. “And driving this, particularly a higher downforce car with higher horsepower, is something that helps a lot.”
“A big thing is getting used to different cars and different tracks and being an adaptable driver, and driving LMP2 is something that is a little bit of a step between where I am now in the Indy NXT Series and IndyCar.”
It wasn’t Simpson’s first time in an LMP2 car, and it won’t be the last. After running Daytona, Simpson will resume an IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup campaign with Tower Motorsports already in progress. He’ll also reunite with Algarve Pro Racing in the European Le Mans Series – all while fighting for the Indy NXT championship in a busy schedule for the 18-year-old driver.
Until he drove Dubai Autodrome for the first time, Siegel had never raced outside of America, let alone had the opportunity to network with an internationally-based team like Poland’s Inter Europol Competition.
“I haven’t really had any access or exposure to European teams, or – I would call this more of a European paddock, even though we’re not in Europe, right?” Siegel says. “Coming over here, meeting a top European team, getting to drive their car, it’s been fantastic.”
“The experience is going to help me a ton back in the States in IMSA, and in Indy NXT in the open wheel stuff. The endurance racing that I’ve done so far has been a huge benefit for me back in the open-wheel car as well.”
Nicknamed “The California Kid,” Siegel looks so much younger than his 18 years. Yet he drives with the poise of an 18-year veteran of the highest levels of racing. He demonstrated that in Race 1 in Dubai when he shadowed Neel Jani – a World Endurance Champion and Le Mans overall winner – for nearly all of their closing stints in the night. A suspension issue forced him to retire in the final minutes.
But the following day, Siegel wouldn’t be denied. He put on a heroic charge in his closing stint to catch and pass Charlie Eastwood – part of the eventual LMP2 champion DKR Engineering team – to win the race from pole position.
Just two weeks prior, Siegel was pulling double duty at Daytona, putting in impressive drives in both the Michelin Pilot Challenge for CarBahn with Peregrine Racing – and then, as a late substitute in Sean Creech Motorsports’ Ligier LMP3, he made his second Rolex 24 start. In both races, though, he was bitterly unlucky not to win through no fault of his own.
2023 will be Siegel’s first full season in Indy NXT after graduating from the series now known as USF Pro 2000 – but he did get a proverbial ‘cup of coffee’ last season, running the then-Indy Lights finale at Laguna Seca.
“Every step up, the competition gets harder, [and] the level gets higher. And here the people that we’re racing against in LMP2 are, the best of the best,” says Siegel. “Lots of former F1 drivers, lots of Le Mans winners and WEC frontrunners. So, getting into race against those guys, drive around them… you’re always learning from the people that you’re around.”
“Getting into race at this level with people of this level is huge and I think will help me compete and hopefully meet the really talented competitors in Indy NXT.”
These sentiments were reinforced by Siegel’s co-driver and Indy NXT teammate Bogle, who was also driving an LMP2 car for the first time in his career. “Any experience that you can gain from a series like this, you can always use it later down the road,” says Bogle, who will begin his third Indy NXT season in 2023.
The pace and poise of drivers like Simpson and Siegel were impossible to ignore. But what Bogle achieved with his share of the Race 2 win was equally impressive.
In Race 1, he looked every bit like an LMP2 newcomer, and was struggling to keep his head above water against more experienced drivers during his first race stint in the Oreca. He had less than 24 hours to make amends in race two, and he did exactly that by outpacing Nikita Mazepin to keep his team in with a fighting shot at the victory.
“For me, the pure amount of seat time that this series offers has been like outstanding, as well as experiencing a different car,” Bogle says. “Even just simple things down to like traffic management, managing objects around you, it really can translate well to the series that I race in, in the States. Being more aware of your surroundings is always a good thing on the racetrack. There are so many valuable things that you can take from here and transfer it over.”
The seat time, the experience of driving a new vehicle in an unfamiliar setting and testing individual skills against a different crop of experienced competitors are all part of what has attracted the young trio of Bogle, Siegel, and Simpson to fly halfway across the world to race in the Asian Le Mans Series.
But the other big factor that influenced virtually every team’s decision to compete was the lure of an automatic invitation not just to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the centennial edition of Le Mans, in front of a sold-out crowd projected to exceed 300,000 spectators.
“Everyone who knows anything about racing knows that’s one of the biggest events. Just to be able to do that would be kind of on another level,” Bogle says of the event. His teammate Siegel put it simply: “I think it’d be a dream for all of us.”
But as Simpson points out, the Indy NXT calendar makes the prospect of any of the three of them running the race difficult. The official Test Day takes place on the same day that the series races around Detroit’s new Renaissance Center circuit. If they were to get dispensation to forgo the test, then it’s still a long trans-Atlantic haul to get to Le Mans in time for the first official Practice session on Wednesday.
“We’d have to find some way to get around that,” says Simpson, “but if I could it’d be awesome.”
While setbacks prevented their respective teams from clinching the automatic invite as series champions, all three drivers put in a good account of themselves in LMP2s.
Indy NXT’s social media team certainly were keeping close tabs. So too was HMD Motorsports, who has all three of these drivers as part of a staggering nine-car fleet. Even Chip Ganassi himself gave his driver Simpson a shout-out after his win in the first race.
And now that they’re back on home soil, each of these can now take that enriching experience back to Indy NXT as they begin their own individual quests to become series champions.