By Tim Mosso
With due respect to bourbon and cigars, Merlot and porterhouse, and yachts in Monaco harbor, there is no union of luxury lifestyle icons more natural than sporting automobiles and Swiss watches.
Since the dawn of auto racing in the early twentieth century, the sight of a stripped-down racer flashing past a crew chief with a stopwatch has been the very image of four-wheeled performance.
Seriously, is it any coincidence that Scott Devon of Devon Tread watch fame decided to build luxury watches when bankrupt Chrysler wouldn’t sell him the Dodge Viper factory? The prosecution rests.
The inextricable linkage of high performance machines large and small reaches its purest expression in the 2014 Tudor United SportsCar Championship. Join 300watches as it previews the inaugural season of the biggest development in American motorsports since the invention of 100-test gasoline.
Sports car racing is the heart and soul of motorsports. Unlike NASCAR, which has devolved into personality-driven arena entertainment for the undiscerning masses, or Formula 1, in which premium automakers field machines with no engineering relevance to their road cars, sports car racing is where the apex predators of the road car market take to the track in anger.
In sports car racing, Ferrari 458 Italias, SRT Vipers, Porsche 911s, BMW Z4s, Chevrolet Corvette Stingrays, and Audi R8s strap on a set of sponsor logos, four slick tires, and roll cages before hitting the track for epic clashes on the hallowed ground of motorsport’s greatest venues.
The 2014 Tudor Championship series represents the product of a merger between the former dueling-banjos of the U.S. endurance racing industry.
The American LeMans series, established in 1999 and governed by the rules of the famed French 24 Hours of LeMans, had been locked in a mutually destructive standoff with the International Speedway Corporation’s (NASCAR) Grand American Road Racing Series, established in 2000. The result had been a division of sponsorship dollars, top racing venues, teams, and manufacturers. It also spawned a considerable amount of animosity between the heads of the respective series.
By 2012, it was clear that the U.S. motorsports market couldn’t sustain two warring factions on the sports-car-racing circuit. The American LeMans Series needed to add new venues and Speedway’s marketing muscle. Speedway’s GrandAm series was suffering from its inability to lure top automotive manufacturers from the American LeMans Series, and there was a dawning realization that the company needed to diversify its products as NASCAR’s growth plateaued and stagnated.
In late 2012, a deal was struck, and a merger of the two series was announced for 2014. Before the new series could debut, Rolex subsidiary Tudor signed as the series’ sponsor. ALMS teams could continue to run the 24 Hours of LeMans in France each June, and Grand-Am’s portfolio of participants would swell to include ALMS stalwarts such as Chevy, Porsche, BMW, Audi, Ferrari, and SRT Viper.
The first season of the new series opened with a smash hit at the Rolex 24 at Daytona on January 25. Regrettably, this is a hyper-literal account of the on-track crash during which Memo Gidley’s No. 99 Corvette-powered prototype rear-ended Matteo Malucelli’s No. 62 Ferrari. The impact, which caused the Ferrari to disintegrate, occurred as the sun set on the Speedway prior to the nighttime segment of the 24-hour event.
While both drivers were taken to the hospital and declared stable, it was a dramatic reminder of the inherent peril of motorsports. Best expressed in a quote often attributed to Ernest Hemmingway, the dangers of auto racing place it in select company among fraught endeavors: “There are only three sports — bullfighting, car racing, and mountain climbing. The rest are mere games.”
The remainder of the inaugural Tudor United SportsCar Championship opener at Daytona International Speedway was a stirring spectacle. The 3.56-mile road course, which pairs half of the NASCAR superspeedway’s vaunted banked oval with an infield road course, witnessed overall victory by the No. 5 Corvette-powered Daytona Prototype (Class Prototype) driven by Jao Barbossa, Christian Fittipaldi, and ex-Formula One pilot Sebastian Bourdais.
The No. 5 ‘Vette-powered machine led a veritable parade of Chevrolet iron into the winner’s circle; the top four overall finishers were Corvette-powered.
In the pure production-based classes, the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR of Patrick Pilet, Richard Lietz, and Nick Tandy won over the chasing No. 55 BMW Z4 GTE of Joey Hand, Bill Auberlen, Andy Priaulx, and Maxime Martin to win the GTLM category by 2.8 seconds.
The No. 555 Ferrari 458 Italia of Alessandro Pier Guidi, Scott Tucker, Bill Sweedler, Townsend Bell, and Jeff Segal won by only 1.3 seconds over the charging No. 45 Audi R8 LMS of Markus Winkelhock, Nelson Canache Jr., Spencer Pumpelly, and Tim Pappas in the GTD class.
In both production-based classes, the victorious cars ran neck-and-neck with their competition until the final minutes of the race, and both class winners finished on the same laps as the runners-up.
While the newer SRT Vipers were the fastest cars in GTLM and won the pole position to start the race, the older but well sorted Porsche 911 and BMW Z4 proved more reliable over the 24-hour span of the race. Ultimately, the lead Viper recovered from mechanical setbacks to salvage a respectable position on the third step of the podium.
In GTD, the No. 555 Ferrari 458 Italia won pole and the class, but the pole-to-checker victory belies the intensity of its battle with the No. 45 Audi R8 LMS.
Second-placed Audi driver Winkelhock suffered his second consecutive last-lap heartbreak at the Rolex 24. Last year, his car ran out of gas while contesting the lead on the final circuit of the track during the final Rolex 24 of the Grand-Am era.
The crews and driver of the Tudor Championship now decamp from Daytona International Speedway for a mid-winter break prior to the next race: the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. This race, which is held on a track hewn from an abandoned World War II airfield, will take place on March 15.
The event is legendary for the raucous party (a contained riot, some would say) that consumes the course’s infield for the entirety of the three-day race weekend.
So renowned is the Sebring infield bacchanalia that when the race was cancelled during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, thousands of fans still showed up just to drink and barbeque.
Many of the cars that take to the Sebring circuit will be using the race as a test event for the storied 24 Hours of LeMans in June. The old bomber ramps that form the basis of the Sebring front straightaway are said to be so punishing to the vehicles that 12 hours at Sebring strains a car and driver as much as 24 hours on LeMans’s relatively smooth Circuit de la Sarthe.
True gluttons for punishment run a duplicate 12-hour race simulation after the Sebring 12 hours concludes. The reasoning? If a car can survive that kind of brutality, 24 hours in France will be a cakewalk.
The remaining 11 events of the Tudor Championship take the series to the most celebrated motorsports venues on both coasts. May 4 brings the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca; the historic grand prix track in Watkins Glenn, NY will host a six-hour endurance event in late June; the championship contenders will cross the famous front-straight “yard of bricks” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late July; and the series concludes on October 4 with the day-into-night Petit LeMans 1,000-mile race at Georgia’s undulating Road Atlanta.
Lest the link between sports-car racing and luxury watches get lost in a haze of burning rubber and fuel exhaust, consider the number of crossover sponsorships linking the Tudor USCC to horology’s power players.
Aside from the titular sponsor, which parent Rolex re-launched on U.S. shores in 2013, the Tudor series includes the Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo support races, in which enthusiasts enter their own Lamborghini Gallardos; the similar 458 Italia-based Ferrari Challenge sponsored by Hublot; and the signature event of the series, the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, which awards Rolex Cosmograph Daytonas to each driver of the winning car in each class.
Even so, does the relevance of these promotional relationships extend beyond simple advertising? Undoubtedly. Tudor series marquee events such the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring are hallowed ground for watch collectors and gearheads alike.
At these races, fans have rubbed elbows with legendary drivers and watch enthusiasts including Steve McQueen with his Tag Heuers, Paul Newman and his signature Cosmograph Daytona, and grand prix champion Jackie Stewart, a prolific Rolex collector. All three were winning sports car drivers in their time; Newman won the Rolex 24 outright in 1995.
Enthusiasts of luxury watches and performance cars often plan group trips to attend car-racing weekends. With brand-specific car corrals sponsored by the manufacturers themselves, and online watch forums coordinating meet-ups at the racetracks, it’s never hard to find like-minded company at a Tudor USCC event.
Fans of high-performance machines of all sizes can look to 300watches for season-long coverage of sports-car racing in the Tudor series, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and all events where fast cars and fast times intersect the passions of jet-setters. Like cars and watches, or champagne and podiums, 300watches and the luxury lifestyle form a natural pair.