Racing & Watches: A History

Few sports and products are as closely linked as motor racing and watches. From Formula One to international rallies, it’s become something of a challenge to find a successful driver without a sponsorship from a major watchmaker.

While today’s drivers may not use their own wristwatches to record lap times and keep track of their performance behind the wheel, the drivers of yesteryear depended on their watches–and in particular, chronographs–to record everything from lap times to pit stops. Below, we’ll look at the history of watches in racing, from the world’s first recorded race in 1894 until today.

The Early Days of Racing Timekeeping

One of the biggest reasons motorsports and timekeeping are so inseparable is because racing depends on highly accurate timekeeping. Remove it and there’s no way to record lap times, race times, or other data.

In fact, timekeeping problems plagued the first motor racing events. The 1894 Paris–Rouen Le Petit Journal “Competition for Horseless Carriages,” widely regarded as the world’s first motor race, finished with several different sets of race times caused by poor timekeeping.

Sir Malcolm Campbell on Daytona Beach

Sir Malcolm Campbell on Daytona Beach

But it wasn’t until the early 1930s that wristwatches became widely used in racing. Rolex was one of the first companies to capitalize on the popularity of motor racing after Sir Malcolm Campbell set a new land speed record attempt at Bonneville in Utah in 1935 while wearing a Rolex Oyster.

After setting the record, Campbell reportedly sent a letter to Rolex noting that he had worn their watch under “somewhat strenuous conditions.”

Heuer Watches and Motorsports

While Rolex was one of the first companies to capitalize on the popularity of racing, it was Heuer that was most closely associated with racing throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Jo Siffert in his car with a Heuer sticker.

Formula 1 racing legend Jo Siffert had a close association with Heuer.

Heuer’s dashboard timers, particularly the Master Time and Monte Carlo, were common sights on rally and race car dashboards. Navigators would use the clocks to track progress throughout a rally course or endurance racing event. Even the Heuer Autavia, one of the brand’s most popular collector watches, began its life as a dashboard timer. It wasn’t until Heuer reinvented the Autavia in 1962 that it became better known as a wristwatch.

Throughout the 1950s, many racers wore Heuer mechanical chronographs, preferring them to other watches for their readability. Ferrari, Lotus, Maserati, Lancia, and other leading Formula One teams depended on manually-wound Heuer chronographs to record their drivers.

As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Heuer continually developed its “big three” chronographs — the Autavia, Carrera, and Monaco — to make them more appealing to racers. The watches went from manual to automatic in 1969, earning Heuer’s Caliber 11 the title of “first automatic chronograph.”

Steve McQueen in Le Mans

Steve McQueen in Le Mans

Heuer watches became more broadly associated with racing in 1971, when legendary actor and racecar enthusiast Steve McQueen wore a Monaco 1133 in Le Mans. To this day, the Monaco is closely associated with the Le Mans race and Steve McQueen.

In the late 1970s, Heuer led the development of Automatic Car Identification Timing (ACIT)—a timekeeping system capable of simultaneously recording the times of multiple cars using micro transmitter technology. To this day, ACIT-like technology remains in use in racing.

Other Watchmakers and Racing

It wasn’t just Heuer that was closely involved in motor racing throughout the 20th century. The iconic Omega Speedmaster, best known for its use by NASA during the Apollo program, was originally designed as a sports and racing chronograph. The Rolex Daytona was inspired by racing and named after one of the world’s most famous endurance races.

Even today, in the digital age, Swiss watchmakers continue to provide timekeeping for many of the world’s most acclaimed races. TAG Heuer, Longines, Hublot, and most recently, Rolex, have been Official Timekeepers of Formula One racing.

While the days of drivers dependent on their Heuer chronographs for lap times and fast pit stops may be largely over, Swiss watchmakers remain just as important a part of motor racing as ever.


Images ©: Header; Silodrome. 1; Monochrome Watches. 2; Chronocentric. 3; Solar Productions/Cinema Center Films. 4; Daytona International Speedway.

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