Why Rolex of All Companies Spends So Much Money to Support Racing
Racing and Rolex—the world's most expensive peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The Super Bowl is always the Super Bowl. The World Series is always the World Series. But in auto racing, the naming rights to almost anything are up for grabs. Write a big enough check and you can slap your company logo on a marquee contest, as Rolex did in 1992 when it became the title sponsor at the grueling 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race. That it's still the Rolex 24 at Daytona over 27 years later reflects the watchmaker's curious commitment to the pursuit of speed—one that's worth digging into.
There are a lot of people swimming in the cultural estuary between cars and watches. Both are showcases for mechanical brilliance, both can be extremely expensive. But it's fair to say Rolex would sell just as many GMT-Master IIs if it cut its Daytona sponsorship, or gave up the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, or axed its F1 timekeeper responsibilities tomorrow and plowed that money into autoplay ads. So why is Rolex still doing it? Why is this Swiss house of horology such an ardent supporter of racing?
Rolex is a private company in every sense of the word. It's owned by a family trust established by its founder, and its employees do not give interviews. Instead, the answers can be found in Rolex's history, its place on the wrists of record breakers, and in a furtive glimpse of how its top brass quietly unwinds during the annual Monterey Car Week bonanza every August.
For a luxury good whose name carries the weight of old wealth, it wasn't until the mid-1920s that Rolex transitioned from just another fine watchmaker to a truly superlative enterprise. It started with the Oyster, the world's first completely waterproof watch, and while the ingenuity and value of the product were undeniable, so was the publicity it received from its early connection to human triumph.
In 1927, a 26-year-old woman named Mercedes Gleitze became the first British woman to swim across the English Channel. However, another woman came forward days later claiming to have done it faster, prompting Gleitze to mount a second crossing (it was eventually revealed that the second woman’s claim was a hoax). Rolex co-founder Hans Wilsdorf saw an opportunity and gave her an Oyster to wear, and after ten-plus hours in the frigid waters, both Gleitze and Rolex emerged as public winners.
Back to cars. Contemporaneously, the British land-speed record smasher Sir Malcolm Campbell was on a quest to top 150 mph, then 200 mph, then 300 mph if he could get there in his custom "Bluebird" speed cars. Seeing its involvement with Gleitze pay off, Rolex began working with Campbell as his fame grew through the 1930s and he broke records with an Oyster on his wrist, using his image in ads with delightfully rote, possibly fake post-run telegrams like "The Rolex watch is still keeping perfect time—I was wearing it yesterday when Bluebird exceeded 300 mph—Campbell." Sir Malcolm reportedly declined a free watch and opted to buy one instead.
Just as Campbell became the fastest man in the world with that 301.13 mph run on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1935, so too did the Rolex he was wearing become the fastest watch in the world. In a good way. The brand's association with speed freaks only grew from there—Chuck Yeager was wearing a Rolex as he punched through the sound barrier in his X-1 jet in 1947, as was NASA astronaut Ed Mitchell when the crew of Apollo 14 reached an escape velocity of over 25,000 mph while slingshotting to the moon 24 years later. Back down on terra firma, Rolex signed on as the official timekeeper of Daytona International Speedway when it opened in 1962 and consummated the union with the first Rolex Daytona chronograph.
Signal boosts from contemporary racers like Paul Newman and Sir Jackie Stewart made the Daytona an icon in its own time, and Rolex's continued habit of handing them out with the trophy at Le Mans and Daytona has cemented its image as the driver's watch. But so too has the way Rolex dusts the peaks of modern auto racing and car culture with its golden crowns and that classy serif font. Today, Rolex is the "official timepiece" of Formula One, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the FIA World Endurance Championship, and yes, the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It's also heavily involved in Monterey Car Week in sponsoring The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca—the closest thing we Americans have to the famous Goodwood Revival in Britain, where Rolex also serves as the official timepiece.
While Rolex doesn't make its executives available for interviews, it does maintain a roster of impressive humans to speak on its behalf. These "Rolex Testimonees" include artists, athletes, and great thinkers at the top of their fields—people like tennis giant Roger Federer, director James Cameron, and a rogues’ gallery of racers including Sir Jackie Stewart, nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, and former F1 greats Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber.
"We are done in by thousandths of a second, and that’s where it has to be reliable and dependable. Trust is a very big big word. Rolex is one of the most famous brands in the world right now because of the trust that people have in the product, because their focus is so brutally on that," says Webber, a nine-time F1 grand prix winner with Red Bull in the early 2010s. "The human endeavor is something they love, to go out and do something very, very adventurous and yes, pretty extreme. When you’re with people that push excellence and people that demand the best all the time, you gotta find out how to make better products."
It's an interesting theory—Rolex hasn't invested untold millions into racing over the years for the publicity, but for the inspiring access it affords them to frankly insane people who exist in a different reality than the rest of us. You need to operate in that space if you want to be the best in the world regardless of discipline, and Webber is right that Rolex's association with generalized excellence is something of a two-way street. Surround yourself with giants and you'll rise to meet them. Given the demands on both watch and wearer, Rolex's study of the art of going fast actually makes complete sense.
There's one more example illustrating how Rolex is for real here. Given its deep involvement with Monterey Car Week (and deeper pockets), you might expect Rolex to host a huge bacchanal every year, a blowout celebration to headline the weekend's more hedonistic side. It certainly could if it wanted to. Instead, Rolex sets aside Friday evening for a small, private event where executives and a few guests of honor eat rare steak and listen to famous racing drivers tell their life stories. This year, the small ballroom watched Mark Webber and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti banter and swap tales about Webber's famous flip in the Mercedes-Benz CLR at Le Mans in 1999, his heated rivalry with former F1 Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel, and why the risk of dying in a crash eventually pushed him to retire.
Again, this is Friday night during Monterey Car Week, when automakers are all putting on big, splashy parties with live DJs and open bars and breathtakingly expensive cars scattered about. The Rolex attendees could dip into any of these. Instead, they sit in silence punctuated only by the clatter of silverware and soak up the stories of a great racer in a signal about who they're actually here for: the drivers.
Like much of modern life, racing would not be possible without the Faustian bargain of advertising. In exchange for funding everything from SCCA cars to Formula One teams to entire championships, sponsors get to slap their names and logos everywhere to become an essential part of the visual experience and cultural firmament for fans. So it matters when a big name cuts marketing budget and disappears from the scene, punching a quietly sad hole in your memories and dooming you to incorrectly call it Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or the Verizon IndyCar Series for years to come.
Conversely, it also matters that there are bedrock racing sponsors like Rolex that support the sport not for the hell of it, not for the pure financial benefit, but out of a deep and abiding belief that the pursuit of speed is important. The time to be annoyed with the constellation of ads in racing was about a half-century ago. The time to appreciate the consistent zeal of a true believer is now.
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