January 27-28 marked the 56th running of the 24 Hours of Daytona — known as the Rolex 24 ever since the Swiss watch brand became official timekeeper and title sponsor in 1992 — and WatchTime was there among a select group of media guests of Rolex to witness a history-making weekend of racing — along with several other memorable moments. Here are 24 of them, one for each hour of the legendary endurance race.
1. Grand Marshal’s Dinner with Chip Ganassi
On the eve of the 24 Hours of Daytona race, Rolex hosted the customary Grand Marshal’s dinner in the Daytona 500 Club. This year’s Grand Marshal was racing legend Chip Ganassi, former driver, Motorsports Hall of Famer, and owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, which had several teams represented in the next day’s race, including the one that would eventually take the victory in the GT Le Mans category. The race, considered the first leg of the Triple Crown of endurance racing, along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring, comprises three competition classes — Prototypes, driven by professionals, purpose-built race cars generally considered the fastest and most advanced vehicles on the track; GT Le Mans, driven by pros and based on manufacturers’ production models; and GT Daytona, the pro-am class in which customer teams are supported by manufacturers such as BMW, Acura, Lamborghini, and Porsche. The rules, which may seem complicated to an auto racing novice, are actually simple: the car that covers the most distance fastest in 24 hours wins.
2. Scott Pruett’s final race
“Friend of Rolex” and five-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett was running his final race — and significantly, his 24th Rolex Daytona endurance race — this year, eventually finishing ninth in the GTD class. Pruett and his wife Judy mingled with the guests at the reception & dinner at the Daytona 500 Club on the Friday evening before the race, as he declared his longtime appreciation of Rolex watches and what winning those five engraved Cosmograph Daytonas has meant to him over his storied career. “I have had an incredible journey to this point and it is very fitting to end my career at Daytona, which has become my second home,” Pruett said, adding, “I am incredibly proud to have won five Rolex 24s and to have been rewarded each time with a Rolex – my Daytona watches will always bring back many fond memories. I still maintain, ‘it’s all about the watch.’”
3. … and a glimpse of Pruett’s 2011 Championship Rolex Daytona
Of course, the legendary driver was wearing one of those Championship Rolexes at the time — the one he won in the 2011 race — and obligingly let me get a close-up, hands-on look at it. Of course, watch fans are familiar with the Daytona’s connection to racing and the famous venue it’s named after: Rolex first served as Daytona’s official timekeeper in 1962, one year prior to the debut of the now-legendary Cosmograph Reference 6239 chronograph watch, which Rolex famously nicknamed “Daytona” to emphasize its affiliation with the race. Its prominent tachymeter-scale bezel marked it as a timepiece expressly engineered for racecar drivers — such as actor and motor racing enthusiast Paul Newman, whose own dedication to the model helped make it an icon.
4. Tasting wines from Pruett Vineyards
One more thing to mention about Pruett: he is not only an extremely successful motorsports athlete, he is also both a wine connoisseur and a winemaker. Fittingly, the Daytona 500 Club, as well as Rolex’s hospitality suites, were well-stocked with reds from Pruett Vineyards, which he and Judy founded in 2010 in California’s Sierra foothills. The standout: The 2015 Taylor’s Reserve Estate Syrah, served at the Grand Marshal’s Dinner, with its dark fruit and mocha notes balanced by a silky mouthfeel with hints of peppery boldness.
5. Hurley Haywood answers questions about the race’s history…
The only man to win as many Rolex 24 races as Pruett — they are tied at five apiece — Hurley Haywood was also on hand in Daytona last weekend, serving as the race’s honorary starter, and addressed the crowd of media and other guests of Rolex the morning before the race began, offering his own insights into what makes this race so singularly difficult and what drives its participants to push themselves and their vehicles to the limits. “These are multimillionaires,” Hurley said at one point about the drivers and team owners. “The prize money is great, but it’s really all about winning that Rolex watch.”
6. …and shows us his Rolex Daytona.
Of course, I asked Haywood — one of the most accomplished endurance racers ever, with three victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and two at the 12 Hours of Sebring to go with his five Daytona wins — to pose with his own hard-won Daytona and he was kind enough to oblige (see below). Interestingly enough, unlike Pruett, whose five wins all came during the Rolex-sponsored era, Haywood won four of his five before the watch company came on board, thus only winning one personalized victory watch. Fortunately, however, when Haywood became a friend of the brand afterward, his collection quickly expanded.
7. A police escort to Daytona International Speedway
Our small media crowd traveled to Daytona International Speedway in distinctive style, with police on motorbikes carving us a path through the race-day traffic. Rolex’s logo is a crown, and apparently it’s good to be the king.
8. A hot lap around the track in a Porsche Panamera Turbo
It’s not a complete trip to Daytona International Speedway without doing a so-called hot lap — in other words, getting strapped into the passenger seat and hanging on for dear life while a professional driver takes you on a sizzling 160-mph+ trip around the track.
9. A walk through the pits with Dario Franchitti…
Our small group had the rare and exciting experience of a guided “pit walk” before the start of the race, led by none other than retired British racing driver Dario Franchitti, a four-time IndyCar champ, three-time Indianapolis 500 champ, and winner in 2008 of the 24 Hours of Daytona, hence the Rolex on his wrist. Franchitti explained what goes on in the pits before and during the race, what makes this endurance race so singularly challenging, and what preparations and routines the drivers and their teams take part in to be competitive.
10. …who gave us this great Chip Ganassi quote:
During his presentation, Franchitti related a piece of racing wisdom that had been imparted to him by Chip Ganassi during the driver’s days of competing for Ganassi Racing: “If you hit another car, it’s your fault. If another car hits you, it’s your fault. If a car hits another car that hits you, that’s also your fault. If a meteor drops out of the sky and hits your car — then you might have an excuse.”
11. The view from the starter’s stand
We made the steep ladder climb to the best (and probably loudest) seat in the house during the 24 Hours of Daytona, namely the Speedway’s starter’s stand, overlooking the start and finish line, where Haywood waved the famous green flag to start the race (at precisely 2:40 PM on Saturday) and where pole positions and laps are recorded throughout.
12. The view from the high bank
One of the aspects that make this 2.5-mile track so special — and so challenging — is its high-banked design, with curves reaching up to 31 degrees of elevation; the track’s builder, NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., insisted on this design to allow cars on the track to reach higher speeds and to allow the fans in the 101,000 seats a better view of the racing. Driving through the banks is an intense, white-knuckle experience — even in the passenger seat — and walking up the asphalt embankment on foot, as we had a chance to do before the race’s 2:40 PM start time on Saturday, offers its own sense of wonder. The hordes of others who took a seat on the asphalt slope and snapped selfies seemed to agree.
13. Nighttime racing
The race customarily runs from 2:40 PM on Saturday to 2:40 PM on Sunday. Doing the math, that means that much of the racing — a majority of it, in fact, considering it’s January on the East Coast — is done at night and in the wee hours of the morning. Watching the cars zooming around the night-lit track, with the multicolored neon lights of Daytona Beach’s famous Boardwalk amusement park in the background, is another experience that is unique to the Rolex 24 and its most die-hard fans.
14. Fireworks over Daytona Beach from the ferris wheel
Another Daytona race tradition, and apparently one of the favorite annual activities of Rolex USA CEO Stewart Wicht: a nighttime ride on the ferris wheel, with its spectacular view of the beach and the racetrack below. As an added bonus, fireworks are set off at 11:00 PM on day one of the 24 Hours of Daytona race and of course, from the tip of the wheel, the view is spectacular. This was shortly before a surprise downpour began drenching the track, with pit crews leaping into action to quickly change their teams’ cars to wet-weather tires for the dark, wet, grueling stretch. It’s called endurance racing for a reason.
15. Filthy martinis – at Martini’s
There are dirty martinis and there are… filthy martinis. As big fan of the former, I indulged in one of the latter at our excellent Rolex-hosted dinner at Daytona’s aptly named Martini’s Organic Restaurant in Daytona Beach — our indulgent sabbatical before returning to the Speedway to catch a few hours of racing after dark. This cloudy, olive-brine-drenched cocktail made the perfect appetizer for a main course of maple leaf duck breast, with a sun-dried cherry and port wine reduction.
16. A tour through the Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum…
While the sun was rising over Daytona International Speedway and the teams were returning to daylight driving after the long, dark night, we embarked on a guided tour of the Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum, only recently (in 2016) relocated to the motor-racing Mecca that is Daytona from its original spot in suburban Novi, Michigan, northwest of Detroit, where it was established in 1989. Still in phase one of its construction, the exhibition space is already filled with fascinating memorabilia from the history of motor racing, with historically significant cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles (like the Hudson Hornet below, a legend of early stock car racing) and plaques honoring the Hall of Fame inductees, several of whom we’d already spent some time with during the weekend, including Ganassi, Pruett, and Haywood.
17. … highlighted by a Rolex racing icon: Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird
While Rolex only became title sponsor of the 24 Hours of Daytona in the early 1990s, the Swiss über-brand’s association with auto racing began much earlier — in the 1930s, in fact, when Sir Malcolm Campbell broke a series of land speed records in a series of vehicles called Bluebird. Campbell wore Rolex watches on his wrist for his record-smashing drives, including the one he took on the long, flat, firm expanse of Daytona Beach in 1935, setting the new land speed record at 216 mph. That Bluebird vehicle, accompanied by a life-sized statue of the British motoring pioneer, is fittingly preserved and on display at the Motorsports Museum.
18. … and the curator’s Scott Pruett story
Any lingering doubts any of us may have had about Scott Pruett’s cred as a wine connoisseur was dispelled when — as several of us were checking out Pruett’s Hall of Fame plaque — our tour guide through the Museum’s exhibits related an anecdote from his days as a publicist for NASCAR: Apparently his PR firm was taking out several drivers to a celebratory dinner when Pruett, dissatisfied with the wines chosen to accompany the courses, commandeered the sommelier and came back with several bottles of something much more prestigious — and expensive — an extravagance that would shortly thereafter need to be justified to the nonplussed boss of the PR firm after the latter had seen the bill.
19. The view from Victory Lane
As the 24 hours on the big Rolex clock ticked down to the few remaining minutes and seconds, we took our seats in the stands overlooking Gatorade Victory Lane, where the winning cars and teams pull in for their congratulations, photo opps, Champagne toasts, trophy presentations, and — of course, those coveted Rolex Daytona watches (ushered in by a celebratory burst of Rolex-green confetti). When the race officially ended at 2:40 PM on Sunday, it was the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPI, piloted by the team of Filipe Albuquerque, João Barbosa, and Christian Fittipaldi, that took the checkered flag.
20. A new record for Lamborghini at Daytona
While the Mustang Sampling team were the overall winners — as I learned from Haywood earlier, it is nearly always the prototype class that wins first place in an endurance competition — there were milestones in the other classes as well. The No. 11 Grasser Racing Team Lamborghini Huracan GT3 was the winner in the GT Daytona category. Driven by Rolf Ineichen, Mirko Bortolotti, Franck Perera and Rik Breukers, it was the first Lamborghini to ever win at a major, international 24-hour endurance race.
21. A new record for laps at the Rolex 24 (808)
Early on in the race, I was told by a longtime racing follower that a car competing in the 24 Hours of Daytona can ultimately rack up as many as 700 total laps around the 3.56-mile Speedway track. This year’s race blew that estimate out of the water, with a record-breaking 808 laps.
22. Rolex USA CEO Stewart Wicht presented the watches to the winning teams.
“It was overwhelming to receive the trophy and a Rolex Daytona after such a challenging drive – that final lap felt like one of the longest of my life!” said Filipe Albuquerque after the prize-giving presentation. “The race was unbelievable, with constant traffic demanding the utmost concentration. It truly was one of the most competitive and relentless 24 hours both inside and outside the car, which makes this win all the more special.”
23. A big day for Chip Ganassi racing…
Chip Ganassi picked the right year to serve as Grand Marshal. The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing, driven by Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Scott Dixon, won the GT Le Mans class, representing the 200th win overall for the Ganassi organization, while another Ganassi Racing Ford vehicle, No. 66, took the number two spot, finishing two laps ahead of the third-place finisher, the No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette Racing C7.R.
24. … and a big weekend for Rolex in sports.
One final aside: At various points over the racing weekend, our hosts from Rolex were sneaking off with their phones to check in on another major sporting event taking place at the same time halfway around the globe: the men’s and ladies’ finals of the Australian Open, with Rolex “testimonees” (the brand doesn’t use the term “ambassadors”) Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniacki both winning their respective singles championship titles at Rod Laver Arena. It was Federer’s record-breaking 20th Grand Slam championship and Wozniacki’s first; both wore Rolexes as they claimed their championship trophies All in all, with new records set both in Daytona and in Melbourne, Rolex had an impressive clean sweep of the weekend with its sporting sponsorships.