Racing Watches 101: Everything You Should Know Before You Buy

It’s hard to imagine now, as we’re neck deep in the digital and connected age, but it wasn’t that long ago that we depended on good ol’ fashioned mechanical precision for timing and calculating.

The racing watch is a perfect example of this.

Before digital watches and smart phones, drivers used their watches to time races and calculate speeds and the need for precision dictated the evolution of their watches.

Although race car drivers aren’t as dependent on their wrist watches  as they used to be, this style of watch is as popular as ever.

Many drivers and non-drivers still choose the racing watch as their go to timepiece because of the history and precision these watches represent.

Others wear them simply because they look great.

Regardless of your reasoning, a nice racing watch makes a great choice because the look will never go out of style.

But before you decide on one, it’s a good idea to get to know the style. In this guide, we’ll go over a little bit of history on these watches as well as discuss the key features you’ll see on modern racing watches.

A Brief History Of The Racing Watch

One could argue there’s no sport more dependent on precision time keeping than race car driving. Without accurate timers, you can’t keep track of lap times, pit stops, or even total race times.

In the case of long duration marathon races, you may not even be able to accurately choose a winner. What if each team is keeping their own time with different watches that aren’t equally accurate?

The results could be up for debate and there could be some very angry drivers.

Turns out this was the case in the early days for racing.

It’s said that the first motorized car race (held in Paris in the late 1890’s) was full of time keeping errors with different official times being reported.

Luckily, by the early 1900’s, watches were becoming more accurate, thanks in large part to Rolex.

Racing had started in Daytona around 1902. By the 1930’s, Daytona had become one of the go to destinations for car racing.

Between the ’20s and ’30s, a famous driver by the name of Sir Malcom Campbell would go to break the land speed record 9 different times.

In 1935, when he hit a land speed of over 300 mph, he happened to be wearing a Rolex Oyster on his wrist.

Campbell praised Rolex for the quality of their Oyster and how well it withstood the harsh conditions for race car driving and the rest is history.

Rolex became a huge name in the world of racing watches (as well as watches in general) and even named a watch line after Daytona in the 1960’s.

Rolex’s Daytona lineup is still going strong today, as is the connection between Rolex and the Daytona Speedway- Rolex is still the official timekeeper of Dayton to this day.

Although Rolex played a huge roll in expanding the popularity of these watches, a brand by the name of Tag Heuer has more recently become the name many think of when they hear racing watch.

Tag created timers that were placed in the dashboards of race cars in the ’50s and ’60s. As they started shifting from dashboard timers to wristwatches, many drivers stood by the brand because of their quality and precision as timekeepers.

In the ’70’s, Tag solidified their hold on the racing world when Steve McQueen wore a Tag Heuer Monaco 1133 in the film, Le Mans, about the famous 24-hour endurance race.

Tag’s Formula 1 line continues to be one of the most popular racing watch lineups today, offering great timepieces at more affordable prices.

Over the last few decades, other famous watch brands, like Omega, have jumped into the race (get it?). These days pretty much all luxury Swiss watch makers offer racing varieties.

Racing watches, much like field watches or pilot’s watches, arose out of the necessity for precision timekeeping. But it’s the iconic look that keeps these watches as popular as ever today.

Let’s go over the specific features you can expect from a racing watch these days.

What Is A Racing Watch?

what is a racing watch


Racing watches were classically used as timers, so their design had to make it easy to do just this. This meant they had to have features that made them easy to read and use during races:

Easy To Read Dial

A notable feature of any racing watch is the large, easy to read dial. They usually have a high-contrast face, so the numerals and second hand are easy to read.

Keep in mind these watches were originally meant to be used by the driver as he was driving. The original racing watches even came with tilted cases, so the driver could easily see the time without taking his hands off the wheel (this isn’t seen anymore).

Although this isn’t really the case any more, most modern race watches still come with pretty simple, clean dials that are easy to read.


The term “chronograph” is just a fancy word for a timer. All racing watches need the ability to time, even if they are just for cosmetic reasons these days.

The chronograph is usually operated with 2 push buttons on the side of the case- one for starting and stopping the timer and the other for reseting.

The chronograph comes with 2 or 3 windows on the face of the watch for recording time.


A tachymeter is a scale located on a rotating bezel that encircles the front of the watch case. Tachymeters can be used to calculate a lot of different things depending on the function of the watch.

In the case of racing watches, they’re often used to calculate speeds and distances.

Using a set distance and timing yourself with the chronograph, the tachymeter can be used to instantly tell you your speed (just make sure you’re using the right units, miles vs kilometers).


Traditional racing watches would come on leather or rubber straps that could easily be swapped out when they wore down. Many also how tiny holes in the band to help with air flow during those hot races.

You can still find racing watches today with these traditional bands, but many now come with metal bracelets.

Final Thoughts

Racing watches have a pretty interesting history behind them. It’s fun to see modern watches and think about how they came to be based on the necessity of the times.

In the case of racing watches, it was all about precision timing. These watches were used for recording and calculating lap times and speeds.

Modern racing watches stay true to their roots and still come with chronographs and tachymeters (even though most of us won’t be using them).

Even if you’re not planning on jumping into the driver’s seat of an Indy car anytime soon, these watches can still make a great choice for everyday use.

Nowadays, they come in many styles and price ranges. Most brands offer racing watches as part of their lineup, so there are tons of options to choose from.

When searching for a racing watch to add to your collection, consider the style you prefer- do you like a simple, clean dial or are you looking for a more modern twist?

When it comes to the band, are you looking for traditional leather or a more modern bracelet?

It’s always a good idea to start with the iconic brands that made racing watches what they are today- Rolex and Tag Heuer. Even if these brands are out of your price range, they’ll give you a good idea as to the styles you might like.



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