Timing Daytona With Rolex, A 24 Hour Experience
The official kick-off to the 2019 racing calendar, the Rolex 24 at Daytona was full of intriguing storylines, incredible racing, and some very special watches.
There are very few races as iconic as the 24 Hours of Daytona. Since 1962, this 24-hour-long endurance race has attracted drivers from all walks of life including; F1, IndyCar, Sports Cars, NASCAR, and more. The race ranks right up there with Indianapolis, Monaco, and Le Mans.
On a single weekend in January, Daytona Speedway’s 2.5-mile-long tri-oval is transformed into a 3.56-mile, 12 turn road course. Blistering speeds matched with a wide array of car and driver combinations make for an exhilarating experience. Which we quickly found out was all about “the watch.”
Rolex at Daytona
Since 1992, Rolex has been the title sponsor of the 24 Hours of Daytona. When their sponsorship began, the race was officially renamed the ‘Rolex 24 at Daytona.’ After just a few hours at the track, it was clear that Rolex’s sponsorship efforts had paid off. Many drivers and fans I encountered simply referred to the race as “The Rolex.”
Perhaps none more famous than Sir Malcolm Campbell's world record-setting run in 1935 aboard the famous ‘Bluebird.’ Achieving a 276-mph land speed record. On Campbell’s wrist that fateful day? A Rolex Oyster. The first recorded Rolex wristwatch used during an auto race. Suffice to say, Rolex has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Daytona, which now manifests itself through title sponsorship of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
From the beach to the track
These days, auto racing has moved off the beaches and onto the track. And not just any track! The Daytona International Speedway located just under four miles from the very beaches that put Daytona on the motorsports map. Many associate Daytona with stock car racing, since – after all, this temple of auto racing was built to house the incredibly risky sand/road race which had been the predecessor to the Daytona 500.
Daytona International Speedway is the brainchild of Bill France Sr. a visionary businessman who arrived in the Daytona Beach area with $100 to his name. After stints as a gas station owner and part-time stock car driver, France Sr. joined forces with his fellow drivers to form NASCAR, the official sanctioning body of American stock car racing. Shortly after, the Daytona International Speedway was built. It’s played host to the Daytona 500 since 1959, and the 24 Hours At Daytona since 1962.
Experiencing Daytona with Rolex
If you’ve ever watched or attended an F1 or endurance race, you’ve no doubt spotted the iconic Rolex logo emblazoned across the racetrack. This is no accident. Rolex has formed strategic alliances with key organizations like the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) and races such as the 24 Hours Of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Additionally, Rolex is the official timepiece of Formula 1.
So when Rolex invites you to attend one of the world's most important endurance races, you jump at the chance. I've been to a few races in my time, but never an endurance race. So I strapped on my trusty Rolex Explorer I and headed to Daytona.
It was clear the moment we pulled up to the iconic track that Daytona is a Rolex town. Upon arriving at the Speedway, you're greeted by a giant sign emblazoned with the Rolex 24 at Daytona logo. Once inside, massive Rolex billboards are planted from one end of the track to the other. In the International horseshoe (the apex of Turn 3) and through the bus stop (turns 8 through 11) Rolex branding throughout covers the Daytona Speedway.
2019 Grand Marshall Scott Pruett
Upon arriving, 2019 24 Hours at Daytona Grand Marshall Scott Pruett greeted our group. Pruett is a five-time winner at Daytona and has been coming to the track since 1985 when he ran a Mazda RX-7. After running the race for 16 consecutive years, Pruett has decided to hang up his racing suit and begin the next phase of his career. For this year’s edition, Pruett has a distinctly different role, Rolex 24 Grand Marshall. Pruett remarked,
“When you do the same thing for as many years, driving that iconic 01 car, I couldn’t imagine a better way to do it than to come back as Grand Marshall. It’s going to be a little bit weird because I did bring my driving suit, but not my helmet. It’s one of those moments in time where you get that opportunity to be able to do what you absolutely love for so many years.”
When asked about his relationship with Daytona, Pruett explained how special the track was to him, "You call that one special track, and this is that one special track for me. For people that don't know it, I call this place "my house!" for all the races I've won here. There's just so many great memories here for me."
It’s all about the watch
Since 1992, Rolex has been giving out a unique Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona to the winning drivers of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Teams are allowed to have up to five drivers per team with a minimum in-car time of four hours per driver to qualify for the win. Coupled with the fact that at this year's race four different classes are competing at Daytona (Dpi, LMP2, GTLM, and GTD). Which means, for each class winner and the overall winning team, Rolex will give out a gold and steel Daytona, inscribed "WINNER" on the case back.
When I asked Pruett what this meant to the drivers, he had this to say, "From a driver's standpoint, it's all about the watch. It's this incredible thing, and there's one thing about taking a trophy home and putting it on a shelf. Or winning the prize money and putting it in the bank, but there's something even more special about something you can wear on your wrist. I'm very fortunate to have won as many Daytonas as I have."
The Daytonas given at the Rolex 24 at Daytona are things of legend. The watches have taken on a life of their own, a sort of bragging right among drivers. The winners of these coveted Daytonas reads like a who’s who of racing legends. Joining Pruett are names like; Arie Luyendyk, Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, and Jeff Gordon. All winners at Daytona, and all proud owners of specially inscribed Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytonas.
The story lines
We had so many incredible storylines at the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona. Perhaps more than any other race, the Rolex 24 attracts the most wide assortment of drivers and teams. This year saw 52 year old IndyCar/CART legend (and double amputee) Alex Zanardi get back behind the wheel with BMW’s factory team. Two-time F1 World Champion and Triple Crown seeker Fernando Alonso partnered with Wayne Taylor Racing for his shot at the Rolex 24. And while Scott Pruett retired after last year’s 24, four-time winner Christian Fittipaldi was giving it one last go in 2019.
For the start of the race, we had a comfortable vantage point just overlooking the start/finish line with panoramic views of the infield course, affectionately named the “international horseshoe.” With drivers from nearly every major country, this was truly an international event.
Let’s go racing!
Once the green flag waved at 2:30pm EST, we were off to the races. Hours of caution free, rhythmic driving gave way to methodically planned strategies. In the early hours of the race, we watched in awe as profession (and more than a few amateur) drivers made their way around the 3.56mi track without incident. Over 80,000 fans were in attendance. Daytona Speedway’s sprawling grandstands were a good vantage point, but most of the fans were in the in-field where access to the drivers, teams, and up close views of the track were optimal.
We asked Pruett what his favorite time during a race was and he replied, “Behind the wheel! It was not uncommon to drive 10-12 hours myself so for me no, but I just loved being out there.”
In your typical auto race, fans experience between two and three hours worth of racing. Most races are measured by the number of laps or the overall distance. NOT at the Rolex 24. The race literally runs for 24 hours. Start to finish, regardless of conditions, the race is always moving, always in motion. For diehard race fans, endurance racing is a true test of man and machine.
Rhythm is key
After the green flag fell, we had almost 14 hours straight of clean racing. With lead changes being exchanged between the Madza DPi team, Penske’s Acuras, and Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor entry (Alonso’s entry). As each team is allowed to field up to five drivers, after a few hours, we saw multiple driver swaps. Outside of the racing itself, an entirely different strategy is playing out in the pit lane, which Pruett elaborated on, “You’re doing 25-30 pit stops depending on how the race and yellow flags play out. Each pit stop, everybody has to be on their game, nobody can miss a mark. Four tires and fuel typically happens in about 20 seconds, driver change is typically 15-18 seconds. Stop after stop, anything can go wrong, but rhythm is key”
Nightfall saw numerous caution flags due to equipment failure and accidents. For endurance races, driver fatigue has to be considered and monitored. While no driver can do the entire 24 hours by him or herself, teams must be mindful of rest, hydration, and nutrition.
Around 4am, the rain began to fall on Daytona Speedway. A slight drizzle at first which led to a monstrous downpour. There are very few racing leagues that compete in the rain and to see these cars lap Daytona with huge rooster tails behind them was quite a sight. After hours of racing in the rain, IMSA officials red flagged (stopped) the race, which brought all of the cars to the pit lane.
During the soaked morning racing, Fernando Alonso and his squad at Wayne Taylor racing absolutely dominated in the rain. Alsonso, a 17 year veteran of Formula 1, was no stranger to the rain, and during one particularly notable stretch, he brought the #10 car through the back of the field to lead just before the stoppage. Dominance and mistake free driving are certainly key to winning the Rolex 24, but luck also has to play in your favor. In this case, the mechanical failures of Mazda’s DPi team, a fire and a turbo failure, helped the leaders remain at the top of the pack.
After hours of red flag conditions, a brief restart occurred around 9am. Cars returned to the track but found the conditions treacherous, heavy rain coupled with standing water on the track made for hydroplaning conditions and because of this, multiple accidents. While the cars only raced for 45 mins before the red flag was dropped again, we saw an intense battle between Alonso and fellow F1 veteran Felipe Nasr. In the end, Nasr ran wide at Turn 1 which helped Alonso take the lead and never relinquish it.
After another red flag period, the race was officially called at 23hrs 50 mins. The overall winning team was the No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R. Driven by Fernando Alonso, Jordan Taylor, Renger van Der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi. In victory lane, the drivers received their specially engraved Rolex Daytona’s by newly appointed US CEO Luca Bernasconi. In all, four teams and 16 drivers received Daytonas in victory lane. The most touching scene was seeing 19-year-old Colin Herta receive his watch for BMW’s GTLM win. He jokingly quipped, “I still live with my parents! This is now the most expensive thing I own.”
The Rolex 24 at Daytona was an extraordinary experience. The pairing of Rolex and endurance racing felt absolutely natural throughout the weekend. Rolex’s commitment to endurance racing will see the brand visit Sebring and Le Mans later this year. We’ll end this piece with a quote from Scott Pruett, "The race, over the last 24 hours, demanded the highest level of commitment, focus and dedication and the drivers have been inspirational. It is so amazing to see these drivers on the podium because so many of them are my friends, whether it’s Alonso and the Wayne Taylor team or the BMW squad – they all deserved victory.”