Racing & Watches: A History

The sport of motor racing and the watch industry has a deep and longstanding history together. Motorsports are dependent on highly accurate timekeeping to track each driver’s performance behind the wheel. The relationship between racing and watches all began at a time when drivers depended on their timepieces, specifically chronographs, to record everything from lap times to pit stops. Prior to the wide use of wristwatches, there were problems and discrepancies with timekeeping at the first motor racing events. Enter, racing-inspired watches. Few sports and products are as closely linked as motor racing and watches. Learn about the connection, racing-inspired watches, and how to buy a racing watch.

Heuer Watches & Motorsports

Heuer quickly became the top watch brand in the sport. Before Heuer made racing-inspired watches, there were Heuer dashboard timers, like the Master Time and Monte Carlo. 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 1 teams depended on manually wound Heuer chronographs to record their drivers.

The 1960s were a major moment for Heuer and motorsports. In addition to the Autavia, the brand developed its two other staple racing watches: the Carrera and Monaco. Then, in 1969, Heuer created the first automatic chronograph, the Caliber 11. 

Heuer’s popularity in the racing world continued to rise into the 1970s. During that era, the famed actor and racing enthusiast Steve McQueen wore a Monaco in the film Le Mans. In the late 1970s, Heuer led the development of Automatic Car Identification Timing (ACIT). ACIT is 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.

Sir Malcolm Campbell on Daytona Beach

Sir Malcolm Campbell on Daytona Beach

Other Racing Watch Brands

In addition to Heuer and Rolex, there are many other racing watch brands. The iconic OMEGA Speedmaster is a sports and racing watch. Other brands, like Longines and Hublot have also served as official timekeepers for Formula 1 racing events. Today’s drivers no longer depend on their own wristwatches to track time. However, the steadfast relationship between the sport of racing and the watch industry remains stronger than ever.

Jo Siffert in his car with a Heuer sticker.

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

Buying a Racing Watch

Just like military buffs have military watches and amateur divers have dive watches, there are many reasons to buy a racing watch. There’s a certain allure to the role watches and precise timekeeping play on the track. There’s the charm of driving heroes of the past like Ayrton Senna and Jo Siffert. There’s simply something attractive about the crisp, sporty, and utilitarian design of a racing watch. These models are arguably some of the most intriguing watches available today. However, choosing the best racing watches for your collection can be challenging with all the options on the market. Let’s dissect the anatomy and discuss a few of the best racing watches no matter what your taste or budget.

Steve McQueen in Le Mans

Steve McQueen in Le Mans

Characteristics of a Racing Watch

First, a few basic characteristics separate a racing watch from other sport watches. From a technical standpoint, you’ll find a tachymeter bezel for speed calculations and either a two or three register chronograph. By design, a racing watch typically features a high-contrast dial that’s legible at high speeds. In addition, they have an angled case orientation that allows the wearer to easily read the time without taking their hand off the steering wheel. Racing watches often come with a rally-style leather or rubber strap that’s both breathable and comfortable. In general, racing watches usually tie into the imagery found on the racetrack. Many of them integrate characteristics like racing stripes, bright colors, or even recycled car components. This results in a watch that might be a bit too “loud” on the wrist for some people. So, always consider your style, wearing preferences, and professional or recreational needs before choosing one.

For The Purist

The purist is fascinated by the golden age of racecar driving and probably had a few McQueen posters growing up. Brand sponsorships and ambassadors don’t really mean much. However, a watch that quietly carries that high-speed lifestyle DNA is a must. If you’re looking for something understated and pure, consider a basic two-register chronograph. This no-nonsense dial layout without additional timing scales is just the style you need. Look for a case with classic styling and a versatile design. One that’s bold enough for modern standards and can work with a range of straps. Also, keep an eye out for “high speed” visual elements that can work with both casual and formal settings. From a technical perspective, go for a low-maintenance movement that can handle anything. Our pick would be the TAG Heuer Monaco. 

For The Weekend Track Warrior

The weekend track warrior is looking for something a little more functional, and legibility is key. The watch should offer a true, in the field, and purpose-built design. However, it should also be stylish enough to wear for most occasions. First, look for a high-contrast, black and white “panda” or “reverse panda” color scheme. A full tachymeter scale is essential. An unconventional material like titanium or ceramic would be a plus for lightweight wear and durability. In addition, a slim or contoured case design would ensure all-day comfort on or off the track. The TAG Heuer Carrera Jack Heuer Limited Edition is one of the best racing watches. 

For The 24 Hours of Daytona Winner

The 24 Hours of Daytona winner needs a watch that’s both fast-paced and eye-catching. The model needs to have true racing watch lineage and a little flair. Opt for a two-tone or precious metal case construction and a metal bracelet instead of leather or rubber. In addition, look for a three-register chronograph configuration. An Oyster-style case with increased water resistance would be a huge plus. Last but not least, splurge for a true in-house movement. Our pick is the iconic Rolex Daytona

Affordable Racing Watches

If price is more of a consideration than style, we have you covered. There are plenty of affordable racing watches on the market. One of our favorites is the OMEGA Speedmaster Racing Co-Axial Chronograph. The Speedmaster is OMEGA’s staple sports and racing watch. It was also the first model in their family of watches to feature the now iconic-triple register dial. The Speedmaster racing watches offer a twist on the traditional Speedmaster with a new movement. 

TAG Heuer also offers several affordable racing watches, including the classic Carrera, Carrera Day-Date, and Monaco Le Mans Limited Edition. The famous border-to-border race on the open roads of Mexico, the Carrera Panamericana, inspired the Carrera. It’s a pivotal model in the history of the TAG Heuer brand. They retired the Carrera for over a decade but relaunched it shortly after Techniques d’Avant Garde acquired Heuer. It’s now one of the most iconic models in the brand’s line. The Day-Date variation of the iconic model adds some elevated complications to this timeless watch. Alternatively, the Monaco was the first square, waterproof automatic chronograph on the market. The Le Mans Limited Edition pays homage to the world’s oldest active sports-car race. Popularized in the 1971 film, the race is simply The Le Mans.

Cartier is another brand with a selection of affordable racing watches. The Drive and the Roadster are both excellent models. The Cartier Drive is a vintage racing-inspired watch with a refined and masculine design. The wide but thin cushion shape gives it a sporty but elegant feel. It’s perfect for the open road or everyday wear. Likewise, the Cartier Roadster is also a racing-inspired watch. Though it’s simple, it has a lot of personalities. It combines the masculine feel of a classic sports watch with the timeless aesthetic that’s iconic to Cartier.

Breitling and Chopard are two additional brands with affordable racing watches in their catalogs. For example, take the Breitling Bentley 24H Limited Edition. This model celebrates the historic anniversary of Bentley’s second-place finish at the famous Le Mans race. Breitling produced this special watch in a run of only 288 pieces in conjunction with the six Le Mans Limited Edition vehicles, each of which was made in a limited quantity of only 48. Chopard offers the Mille Miglia, which takes its name from what is known as the world’s most beautiful race. It’s one that’s reserved for classic and vintage cars that have been part of historical races. Thus, the model has a suitably vintage racing-inspired design.

Choosing the Best Racing Watch for You

A racing watch or racing-inspired watch can serve as a great everyday watch. Sure, you might not find yourself speeding through victory laps or timing your work commute with a tachymeter. However, it’s easy to appreciate these watches nonetheless. Overall, they serve as a great addition to any collection. You really can’t go wrong with any of the options listed above.


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

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