Why Do Car Nerds Like Watches?

jenson button john button rolex daytona brawn f1 fathers and sons
Why Do Car Nerds Like Watches?Ted Slampyak

Wristwatch content is marmite for Road & Track readers. On one hand, car obsessives tend to indulge many fascinations beyond diffs and pistons. Vintage stereos, racing bicycles, lever-operated espresso machines, the list goes on. On the other hand, it’s tough to separate watch enthusiasm from the appearance of snobbery; these are often expensive and glitzy wrist baubles, jewelry by most definitions. That’s off-putting to some readers. I understand.

I guess if you just don’t get the watch thing, and don’t care to try, please remind R&T to STICK TO CARS down in the comment section. If you click back to our home page, a glut of performance-car content awaits. But if you’re willing to be won over by a parable about Formula 1, fathers and sons, and a Rolex that took a trip through a washing machine, please stick around. We’ll even loop this lesson back around to cars by the end.

Welcome to Kinardi Line, mouthpiece of the free world’s most curious auto writer. Home to short musings, long sighs, and shitbox worship.

To preface: Last Summer I sat down with Formula 1 champion Jenson Button. In a one-on-one interview, we covered his historic season at Brawn GP for a piece in Volume 14 of the magazine. Button is one of the newest Rolex Testimonees (their term for an ambassador), and as such, Rolex graciously arranged for that interview (plus another one with Le Mans GOAT Tom Kristensen), but also included me in a separate roundtable with watch journalists.

rolex testimonee, jenson button
Yes, some people wake up in the morning and look like THIS.Tom O'Neal

After giving me some leash to nerd out on Lotus suspension with Button, the watch writers swooped in. They asked about Button’s history with the brand and the Rolex adorning his wrist (a solid gold, showstopping Daytona chronograph, pictured above), but it was a story about his father’s watch that really captured my attention.

“I've always been into watches. I've always had a connection to Rolex, you know, even though I've only recently become a Testimonee. It's always been special to me, because when I got to Formula 1 when I was 20 years old, I wanted to treat myself,” Button said. “So the first thing I did was buy a watch, and I bought a Rolex Daytona.”

26 may 2001 formula drivers left to right eddie irvine, enrique bernoldi, jos verstappen and jenson button at the formula one grand prix ball, the monte carlo sporting club, monte carlo mandatory credit clive masonallsport
Young Jenson Button, at right, sporting the Rolex Daytona he bought to celebrate an F1 debut. Clive Mason

Button bought a second Daytona to underline the occasion, a matching piece in stainless steel for his father, John Button. John was a former rallycross driver who endowed his son with enough talent, discipline, and support to produce an F1 title. No small feat. Anyone who tuned in to F1 from the turn of the century through the following decade will have seen John, usually embracing his son after one star-making performance or another. John was there for Jenson’s first race in Formula 1. He was present for Jenson’s first F1 podium. He was right there for his son’s first win at Hungary, circa 2006.

sakhir, bahrain april 4 jenson button of great britain and bar celebrates with his father john and bar boss dave richards after finishing 3rd during the bahrain f1 grand prix at the bahrain racing circuit on april 4, 2004 in sakhir, bahrain photo by clive masongetty images
John at the Bahrain Grand Prix, the bracelet of his Rolex Daytona showing.Clive Mason

In fact, John became a fixture of the F1 paddock; I’ve heard offhand that John only missed one of Jenson’s races in Formula 1. Rather than create a bristling father-son friction (ask either Verstappen about this dynamic, if you don’t understand), John’s presence only seemed to steady the younger Button on his path.

“It can be a problem if the father isn't there because the kid can be different than maybe he should be," Button said in a 2011 Independent interview. "The best thing is to have a dad who understands everything, like I did. You can grow quicker without a dad there, perhaps, but maybe you grow up to be something you shouldn't be.”

John sported the matching Rolex Daytona, a cherished totem of the Buttons’ mutual success. The pair can be seen wearing the matching watches in period photos. But the F1 circus and its globetrotting calendar kept both Jenson and his father busy over the following years. One imagines that traveling to a new continent every few weeks might provide enough reasons to leave a precious heirloom behind. Of course, leaving behind such a precious (and valuable) object for weeks on end can be equally harrowing.

budapest, hungary august 06 jenson button of great britain and honda racing celebrates with his dad john during the hungarian formula one grand prix at the hungaroring on august 6, 2006 in budapest, hungary photo by mark thompsongetty images
Jenson and John, never more than an arm’s length apart at the end of every race. Mark Thompson

“He lived in the south of France [at the time] and he used to get robbed quite a lot," Jenson said of his father. "So he decided to put his watch somewhere that thieves wouldn't even think of looking, in the washing machine. The problem is he forgot that he put it in the washing machine.”

Do note that Rolex watches are generally rated to survive the intense pressure which occurs beneath hundreds of meters of water. Yet arguably no mechanical watch will survive the heavy rinse cycle. The watch was destroyed during its trip through the washing machine. In the blur that is life, John set aside his broken watch and moved on.

Years later, after his world championship victory, Button still felt hung up on his father’s waterlogged Daytona.

“So for his 70th [birthday], I said, ‘Dad, I wanna buy you a special watch.’ I said, ‘Let me know what style, what color suits you.’”

“He showed me a picture of this rose gold Rolex Daytona with a brown dial and the black bezel and it had the leather strap on it. And initially, I looked at him and was like, ‘there's a lot going on with that watch.’ Anyway, I bought it for him and remember giving it to him and his face just lighting up. In reality, when he saw it, the watch was very different than seeing pictures. He put it on and I was like, ‘Wow, that works.’ So that's the good point part of the story,” Button said.

The bad part of the story came shortly after. John passed away that same year from a suspected head injury, though the particulars of his death will never be known. John Button was just 70 years old.

Sick with grief, Jenson inherited the watch. Since that day, he wore his father's 70th-birthday watch almost constantly.

northampton, england july 14 race winner lewis hamilton of great britain and mercedes gp talks with 2009 f1 world drivers champion jenson button in parc ferme during the f1 grand prix of great britain at silverstone on july 14, 2019 in northampton, england photo by bryn lennongetty images
Button wearing his father’s watch, on the grid with seven-time champion (and former McLaren teammate) Sir Lewis Hamilton.Bryn Lennon

“So this week, really, is the first time I haven't worn that watch,” Jenson said at the round table interview. “I wear it pretty much all the time because of the connection to him. I've put an Oysterflex strap on it and it’s just stunning. I get so many compliments wherever I go. And it obviously has such, such special memories to me. So putting it in the watch box and walking away was quite tricky this week, but it's not exactly exactly a bad trade.”

I was struck by how simple yet deep, specific and universal Button’s story was. The watch reminded him of his late father, of shared triumphs, of an entire lifetime lived. It is a physical manifestation of memory.

Just like cars, watches are a rare object which if selected properly and cared for religiously, have an effectively endless longevity. Because they were shaped for a simple task by utilitarian needs, watches accompany us on our journeys far longer than a smartphone, draws us in closer.

The scarred flanks of my own vintage Seiko dive watch remind me of caving during a Utah snowstorm, of rappelling red canyons in Moab, and even the million drab hours I’ve stared at its dial, lit only by the dim glow of an airplane cabin.

new york, new york july 17 jaden smith and jenson button attend the abb fia formula e new york city e prix on july 17, 2022 in new york city photo by david m benettdave benettgetty images for formula e
Button, his old Daytona, plus a strange kid with a helmet.David M. Benett

Hopefully when my time comes, the Seiko will pass those quiet memories to my kids. Maybe they’ll look down at its pocked case and wonder about the many adventures the watch endured. Maybe they’ll throw it on eBay to make the rent, and somebody else will do the wondering. An old watch is full of secrets, but tells none of them. That mystery is yet another part of the charm.

We imbue watches with meaning in the same way we imbue any object with meaning. They carry our stories and spark our memories. Sometimes they’re central to a shared narrative, key to the legends of F1 drivers, fathers and sons. What else is there to say? You either get it or you don’t.

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