How Rolex’s Longtime Love Affair With Daytona Is Paying Off in 2023

Rolex has long been synonymous with the 24 Hours of Daytona, and thanks in part to IMSA’s new GTP category, it’s seeing the fruits of its labor once again.

byCaleb Jacobs| PUBLISHED Feb 1, 2023 5:00 PM
How Rolex’s Longtime Love Affair With Daytona Is Paying Off in 2023

Rolex's history in racing is well documented, and its support of it is all but waning, even in 2023. So much is clear through its involvement with Formula 1, Le Mans, and most prevalently in the U.S., the 24 Hours of Daytona. That race is colloquially referred to as "The Rolex" by most everyone involved, bucking the on-again, off-again nature of sponsors and racing in recent years. The watchmaker has always taken holistic ownership of the sportscar endurance event in a way that feels singular, but why? The reasons became clearer by the lap last weekend at the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

It's been officially named the Rolex 24 since 1992, though the Swiss style icon's association with Daytona has royal roots that go back much further. During the 1930s, Sir Malcolm Campbell famously trounced land speed records on the Daytona beaches, all while wearing a Rollie on his wrist. The result was an immensely circulated advertisement with Sir Campbell endorsing the Oyster, and legend has it, he wouldn't accept one as a gift—he insisted on purchasing it himself. Little did he and Rolex know that in the coming decades, an elite group of drivers would receive their own as what's regarded as the ultimate prize in motorsports.

Rolex maintained its relationship with the France family, arguably the most significant surname in American racing, when Bill Sr. opened Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Historic literature and imagery of the track show the unmistakable crown logo everywhere, and unlike other companies that have famously sponsored racing and eventually left, Rolex simply hasn't gone anywhere. You can't escape the brand's signage at the track during the Rolex 24 race weekend, and no matter how numb you've become to commercialization, it's a good thing for fans when companies support their passion with cash.

When Rolex took on the role of title sponsor in '92, American sportscar racing had a lot going for it. IMSA was still in its original GTP era with manufacturers like Jaguar, Nissan, and Porsche funneling millions of dollars into the sport, drawing millions of eyeballs in the process. The racing was incredibly competitive and gave fans plenty of reason to watch, giving Rolex more mindshare throughout it all.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL — February 2, 1992: At Daytona International Speedway, the winning Nissan R91-CP is sandwiched between two other competitors as the checkered flag falls to end the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki took the victory racing for Nissan Motorsports of Japan. (Photo by ISC Images and Archives via Getty Images) Getty Images

These cars would run their last 24 Hours of Daytona in 1993, however, leaving a big hole as the top-tier prototype class withered away. Rather than being mentioned alongside fellow luxury brands in the fastest category, Rolex was awarding watches to overall winners in Riley prototypes, which didn't ring a bell for the general public despite their stellar race cars. Meanwhile, other series like NASCAR were commanding larger and larger audiences as the '90s went on, stealing viewership from sportscars with larger-than-life drivers named Gordon and Earnhardt.

Now, it's not like every sportscar company abandoned ship during this time. Porsche was still present in the GT categories, as was Dodge with its radical Viper racer that took the overall win in 2000. Aside from Ferrari's victory in 1998, though, the Rolex 24's top class was headlined by niche names that the average viewer may have never heard of.

Rolex held true and even became the title sponsor for Grand-Am's top racing series in 2000. Its name built up the racing league's reputation for casual and affluent fans, and despite the lack of full-on manufacturer efforts from sportscar brands in its fastest category, the Rolex Sports Car Series produced great on-track action. NASCAR and IndyCar drivers alike would moonlight in the series, most often in key races like the Rolex 24 as everyone sought a custom Daytona wristwatch.

The pieces started coming back together in the 2010s as IMSA regained its role as sanctioning body for American sportscar racing. Chevrolet soon joined in with a Corvette Daytona Prototype, whose bodywork actually resembled the production model—something the series had been missing since everyday manufacturers dropped back to simply supply engines in the years prior. In 2014, fans saw the Corvette DP win the Rolex 24 overall, helping rekindle the race's relevance in the public eye.

This continued to grow over time, as did IMSA's pool of top-flight manufacturers. The innovative Daytona Prototype International category brought Acura, Cadillac, Mazda, and Nissan into the mix from 2017 to 2022. Those first two—Acura and Cadillac—dominated the Rolex 24 during this time period, achieving a key crossover for the premium watch and auto brands.

Now, it's come full circle as IMSA's second GTP era kicked off at the 2023 Rolex 24. Acura, BMW, Cadillac, and Porsche led the grid, and next year, Lamborghini is set to join in with McLaren representing a hopeful sixth entry. It's a crucial time for IMSA as its popularity has the potential to overtake IndyCar, who's made do with the same two manufacturers for a decade, while also attracting more premier parties to join in.

IMSA's uncanny ability to produce competitive regulations and attract top-tier outfits resulted in a GTP podium that was separated by less than 10 seconds after 783 laps. In essence, it did exactly what IMSA needed it to by bringing together an unparalleled and growing mix of manufacturers with world-class drivers. The 2023 event proved that IMSA—and, more specifically, Daytona—is where to watch if you want the best racing, full stop.

And Rolex is soaking it up as the indelible partner that never left.

IMSA President John Doonan (left) shakes hands with Rolex USA President and CEO Luca Bernasconi (right) in victory lane at the 2023 Rolex 24. The Drive / Caleb Jacobs

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