Ethos

Rolex and Motorsports: Partners in Speed

The two have a long, strong history

LOS ANGELES, California — “Rolexes are indestructible,” says Hurley Haywood, one of America’s most successful endurance racers, as he stands on the terrace during a private reception at a mansion deep in the Hollywood Hills. Haywood pulls back his shirt cuff, gives a small smile—which, if you’ve spent any time with the laconic race car driver, you know a smile means high praise—and starts to tap on the watch’s sapphire crystal as lights from the Sunset Strip below cast a pinkish glow on his grin. “I’m rough on a watch. It’s got to withstand all of the rigors of racing, all the tax I put it through.” Haywood should know about the watch’s durability—he owns nearly every model of Rolex Daytona ever made, most of them hard won from time in a race car.

Rolex employs official spokespeople to talk up the brand, including Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart and nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, but Haywood, crooked grin and all, isn’t on the watchmaker’s payroll. He’s a genuine fan, converted from the moment in 1970 when he bought his first Rolex for $260 at a U.S. Army post exchange while stationed in Vietnam. “Since then, I always had Rolexes. It’s just the watch I want to wear.”

Haywood isn’t the only race-car driver who has had a love affair with the brand, of course. Rolex and motorsports have been inextricably linked since British racer Malcolm Campbell wore a Rolex Oyster while breaking the 300-mph speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935. Campbell is said to have mailed Rolex letters extolling the virtues of its products. But when you think of racing and watches, Rolex and the now iconic Daytona comes to mind. The relationship with Florida’s Daytona International Speedway predates the famous endurance race held at the track. It began when Rolex Watch U.S.A.’s then-president, Rene P. Dentan, forged a friendship with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.

In 1964, Rolex started to award the chronograph to the winning drivers of the Daytona Continental—then an FIA-sanctioned, three-hour endurance race—and added the word “Daytona” to the dial, altering the watch world forever. (The race’s familiar 24-hour format made its debut in 1966.) “It’s all about the watch,” says Scott Pruett, the American racer who has won 15 Rolex watches, including five for overall wins at the Rolex 24, during a career that spans more than three decades. “Every one is sacred, and there are stories behind every one of these watches. It becomes more than a timepiece, it becomes an heirloom and even more so if it says ‘Winner of the Rolex 24’ on the back.”

Aside from its ties to American sports-car racing, Rolex is also the official timepiece of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Formula 1. Vintage racing is also high on its priority list—it is the title sponsor of the annual Monterey Motorsports Reunion and is also heavily involved with the U.K.’s Goodwood Revival.

Like a Porsche 911, the Rolex Daytona is instantly recognizable, and over the years the changes to both have been incremental rather than evolutionary. It’s these minor changes—and the obsessive nature of collectors of both products—that add to the lore and start to drive collectors crazy as they obsess over the smallest details. Although Rolex is tight-lipped about most of the changes, it’s not too hard to find a hardcore fan to opine about the tiny tweaks to the dial, bezels, pushers, and significantly, the movements.

“With the Daytona, you had this idea that you were going to market these things to people,” says Benjamin Clymer, founder of the watch website, Hodinkee. “Before, chronographs were really ‘tool’ watches for those in the racing industry, and that’s about it. And Rolex said, ‘OK, we’re going to make this the racer’s watch.’ There’s a history of these watches going on the wrists of great racers. And when you have these famous racers wearing this watch because they’ve actually won at Daytona, it creates a secondary level of appreciation and understanding from the motorsports community.”

A paul Newman Daytona sold at Christie’s for $1.1 million. Not too shabby an investment for a watch that cost only $210 in 1963.

If the racing world wasn’t enamored with the Daytona before, it certainly was after Paul Newman, who was just starting his professional racing career, wore a Reference 6239 on his wrist in 1972. Given to him as a gift by his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, these Daytonas are set apart by subtle but important differences, such as an art-deco font for the numerals on the subdials and small squares at the end of the hash marks.

Although never officially named after the actor, the “Paul Newman” Daytona is one of the rarest and most sought-out variants of the timepiece. You can pick one up in good condition starting around $75,000 and, depending on the year, the prices can skyrocket from there. In May, 2017 at Philips Geneva Watch Auction, a Daytona Ref 6263 dubbed “The Legend” and one of three known yellow gold Paul Newman Daytonas sold for $3,717,906. In 2013, a 1969 stainless-steel Paul Newman Daytona sold at Christie’s for $1.1 million. Not too shabby an investment for a watch that cost only $210 in 1963.

“I never really gravitated to the Daytona, and I passed on many when they were ‘cheap,’ but I’ve learned to appreciate them and like them aesthetically,” says Matt Hranek, author of the new book, “A Man and His Watch” (see page 105). In the book, Hranek weaves the stories of 70 one-of-a-kind timepieces from the men who’ve owned these watches via personal anecdotes.

This steel Daytona belongs to Automobile contributor Andy Pilgrim, awarded for his overall win at the 2004 24 Hours of Daytona.

“Rolex makes real tool watches, and I love the fact that they specialize,” Hranek says. “The Submariner for divers, the GMT for pilots. It’s hard not to love the Daytona in terms of its design and because of its iconic status. A lot of that is due to the famous owners. When I visited Mario Andretti for my book, he pulled out every watch he had ever owned and placed them all on a big table. In the middle was an older Daytona, and I said to him, ‘Wow, look at the Daytona,’ and Mario looked at me, shrugged, and said, ‘Yeah, I did win that race a couple times.’ I just sighed and said, ‘Oh yeah, of course you did.’”

Rolex introduced a new Daytona with a black ceramic bezel during the 2016 edition of Baselworld, the watch industry’s top expo, and the news excited even the most jaded watch insiders. The New York Times called it the hottest watch money can’t buy. a waiting list, if you don’t know the right people, can stretch into a yearslong proposition. A few months after its release, we asked Haywood if he had one. “Not yet,” he says. “But I’m working on it.”

The first precision certificate ever issued for a wristwatch, commissioned by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf.

Rolex SA, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, was founded in London in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davis. Wilsdorf reportedly chose the Rolex name because it was short enough to fit on the face of a watch, consisted of symmetrical letters of the same size, and was easy to pronounce in many languages. Today it is the largest luxury watch brand by volume, producing some 2,000 watches a day. Forbes in 2016 ranked the company the 64th most valuable brand in the world with $4.7 billion in sales.

A classic Rolex Daytona Reference 6239 “Paul Newman” sits next to a brand-new, black-over- black Daytona with the very desirable ceramic bezel, courtesy of BobsWatches.com.

For a brand that revolves so much around wealth, Rolex is hesitant to talk about money. Sponsorship terms are not disclosed to the public, and company executives do not do interviews.

Ariel Adams, founder of seminal watch website aBlogtoWatch.com, says Rolex is secretive in most areas, including money matters. “It spends more than any other watch brand on marketing,” he says, “and it’s a key reason for the brand’s success. I’m not comfortable speculating an amount it spends since I have no idea, but I do know its strategy is to sponsor the top-tier events in each sport and to ensure no other watch brands take its place.”

At left, a trademark document for the Rolex name was signed by Wilsdorf himself in 1946.

Rolex in 2015 extended its title-sponsor contract for Daytona’s 24-hour race with IMSA, signing up through 2025. At the same time, Daytona International Speedway began an ambitious, $400 million remodel and expansion of a towering complex. Rolex announced itself as a partner in the undertaking and now has its name on the new luxury lounge along the front stretch. When asked about financial details on the Rolex partnership, a spokesperson for Daytona International Speedway declined to reveal the deal’s value. But it is not difficult to imagine the sums required to keep the brand front and center of a global audience. In 2012, when Rolex succeeded Hublot as the official timekeeper and official timepiece of F1, it was speculated to cost at least $20 million per year.

Rolex signage is inescapable at modern motorsports events. Look for branded clocks, hats, lanyards, advertisements, banners, and flags at the biggest circuits in the world.

Despite Rolex’s significant involvement in the world of motorsports, a spokesperson for the watchmaker told us that its timepieces have never been used to time the races, and the timing in early F1 years was done with Heuer chronographs. So why do so many get so excited about Rolex and its relationship with racing? You could say the connection is symbolic. A Rolex spokeswoman said, “Rolex is very much about individual achievement. We sponsor people, not teams. Think of a race-car driver. Sure, there is a team involved, but it’s just that one person out there on the track.”

Haywood sees a connection to velocity. “They’re really at the top of the line of motorsports,” he says, “but they also do a lot of other sports—tennis, riding, sports that involve speed and timing. So I think they like to have that identification.”

In addition to its connections with sports, Rolex actively supports music, culture, the arts, and scientific achievement with its Enterprise Awards. So what is the return on investment for all those sponsorship dollars? By some measures, Rolex is considered the most powerful luxury brand in the world, with a cachet no one else in the business has been able to replicate. What can’t be measured in dollars, however, can perhaps be measured in influence and the number of watches you see on the wrists of race fans and automotive enthusiasts alike.

“A Rolex is kind of like a Porsche,” says Haywood, who knows firsthand after spending so many years racing and winning for the German car manufacturer. “It’s a brand that’s got a great history to it. I like simplicity, and I like engineering. And that’s what I like about a Rolex. You look at it, and you know what time it is.”