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The History of Rolex, Tudor and Motorsports in Japan

Rolex's relationship with automotive racing is, at this point, very well-established.
A Tudor sponsored car taking the checkered flag in Japan. A clearer photo is later in the post.
Formula 1 and Rolex marked a decade of official partnership this year. One of the brand's most successful designs is named after a famous race: the Daytona (500). And, the record-setting Paul Newman Rolex Daytona which sold at auction in 2017 was worn by Newman during his illustrious career on the race track.

In this post I will detail a lesser-known relationship between Rolex and automotive racing. In the 1960's through the 1970's, Tudor and Rolex sponsored at least one race car in Japan. I initially learned about this sponsorship through my conversation with Elias, which was also the basis for my prior post on Tudor. While I am not the first to write on the subject of Rolex/Tudor auto racing in Japan (for example, see the posts here and here), I believe this post will be one of the most detailed explorations of Japan's Rolex / Tudor Watch Racing Team. Let's get into it.

(Note to readers: many of the photos presented here and their association with certain races have been curated by a group of Japanese auto racing enthusiasts. For this post, I draw from their threads on Discord as well as the hard copy of a Japanese magazine I obtained. Both are listed in sources at the end of the post. Please note that there may be slight innaccurracies in the material here. If I discover this is the case, I will revise the post accordingly. Also, I've relied upon Google Translate for material which was originally published in Japanese.)

Now Arriving, Haneda Airport

Our story begins in 1966 on the tarmac at Tokyo's Haneda airport.




Top: Jetliner delivery of the Porsche 906 chassis 120. Here it is still in the hold of the aircraft.
Middle: One of the earliest moments from the Porsche 906/120 arrival in Japan.
Bottom: Members of the Taki race team posing with the Porsche 906/120.

In a moment that would later make the cover of "Auto Sport" magazine, a white race car has been removed from the belly of an airliner and sits atop a cargo lift. The Porsche 906 (aka Carrera 6) chasis number 120 has arrived in Japan. An entourage of at least a dozen people attend to the car. This is clearly a big moment. Later, a team would pose with the car for a formal photo (Taki second from left).

The 906 launch was announced by Porsche in January, only a few short months before the 906/120 arrived in Japan. During the development process, the design of the Carrera 6 was tested in a wind tunnel, where it achieved impressive results. Only 50 examples of the car were manufactured. When it debuted in 1966 at the Daytona 500, it won its class, a feat that it repeated in numerous subsequent races. The 906 was a serious car for serious competitors. After retiring from racing, driver Tomohiko Tsutsumi described the Porsche with a compelling analogy: "I had driven many different cars before the Carrera. For example, if you had never eaten special sushi and always ate conveyor belt sushi, you would think that this was good. If you eat special sushi once, you'll know that the conveyor belt sushi you've been eating is a decent one. In that sense, Carrera 6 is special sushi."

In its earliest years in Japan, driver Shintaro Taki raced the 906 chasis 120. Taki previously raced a Lotus Elan. Taki had great success with the car during the 1966-7 seasons. He earned seven first place finishes.

Rolex and Tudor Sponsorship

We first find evidence that the Porsche 906/120 was sponsored by Rolex / Tudor during the 1968 Japanese racing season.
A photo of Rolex / Tudor Racing Team members with sponsor organizers. Front row: Mr. Reed, head of watches from Liebermann-Waelachli. Back row, left to right: Nishikawa, Tsutsumi, Yoneyama and Oshima. Oshima is also from Liebermann-Waelachli
According to a March, 1969 article in AUTO SPORT (published in Japan), the sponsorship was arranged by two representatives from an agency named Liebermann-Waelachli, the primary distributor of Rolex and Tudor in Japan. A Mr. Reed was head of Rolex for Liebermann-Waelachli and he was directly involved in the project. He collaborated with Sadao Oshima, who was the General Manager of Advertising and Planning at Liebermann-Waelachli. Oshima was quoted as saying "Rolex Tudor is the first attempt to turn a race into a venue for publicity. I will spare no efforts to make it a success. I have high hopes for the future of this team." The same article claims that Rolex/Tudor had a billboard at the Suzuka circuit.



Above: The earliest photos I found with Tudor livery, these from the 1968 Fuji 1000.





Above: Tudor racing at Suzuka, 1968.
Rolex / Tudor sponsorship first appears on the Porsche 906/120 livery during the 1000km Fuji race held on July 21, 1968. The word "TUDOR" appeared in large lettering across the rear of the body between the brakelights. "ROLEX TUDOR RACING TEAM" appeared near the latch of the engine compartment (mid engine in this case), while the words "TUDOR" and what appears to be the Tudor Rose apppear over the rear wheel wells.

Records show that the drivers, who were new to this Porsche, struggled at Fuji. They did not finish the race. Two months later, though, their experience with the Fuji 1000 seemed to pay dividends. The same drivers came in second at the 1000km Suzuka race. A color photo of the car is available from this competition. "TUDOR" is emblazoned on the front hood of the car, between the headlights. Further up the hood, just beneath the windshield, the word "ROLEX" appears. It is decorated by curved lines in a manner that is similar to the engraving used on Rolex bracelet clasps. Just beneath the doors, the bodywork is marked "TUDOR WATCHES."

Tudor racing at the All Japan Clubman Fuji, 1969. The Tudor car is topmost. Note the appearance of the shield emblem.
In April, 1969, the Tudor-sponsored Porsche achieved a third place podium finish at the All Japan Clubman Fuji race. Roughly six weeks later, the Rolex / Tudor sponsored car had one of its best outings during the Suzuka 1000 race. I will return to this particular event later because I have managed to obtain many details about this particular competition. Just a few short weeks after the Suzuka 1000, the team reached the podium again, placing third in the Fuji 300 on July 29, 1969. The car continued to sport Tudor livery.









First and second photos above: The Tudor spider racing in the Suzuka 12 Hour in 1969. Third photo: The Tudor spider at the Fuji 12 hour in 1969. Fourth photo: the Tudor spider, race unknown.
Towards the end of the summer, after the Suzuka race, the team decided that a serious body modification was called for in order to maintain the Porsche's competitiveness. Later (see sources below), driver Tomohiko Tsutsumi explained, "After thinking about it for a long time, I came to the conclusion that weight reduction is the only option. However, even if we think about what can be made lighter, we cannot replace the material with our own hands. The only thing that came to my mind was the windshield. It was made of glass and weighed 20kg. So let's get rid of the glass, and we'll save a lot of weight and lower the center of gravity. It was my idea to remove the glass."

The resulting "spider" version of the Porsche 906/120 was visually striking. Tsutsumi was satisfied with the performance of the modified car. He cited qualifying for a number of decent pole positions with the spider and even seemed to gloat a bit about the fact that newer cars could not keep up with the then-aging Porsche. However, racing performance lagged a bit. The car did not finish the Fuji 1000 race in July. It finished twelfth in the Suzuka 12 hour race on August 10, 1969. The car suffered from gearbox problems in that race. The Tudor livery remained on the Porsche for both of these races.









First and second photo above: a green liveried race car with Rolex sponsorship prominently displayed, both are potentially the same car. Third photo: a car with Rolex marked on the front bonnet drafting a Ford GT40.
After 1969, Rolex and Tudor continued to sponsor Japanese race cars (these may or may not be the same Porsche). In 1970, Rolex branding seemed to become more prominent on sponsored cars. During the Junior 7 Hokkaido Challenge Race, a car wearing Rolex green livery appeared on the track. Between the rear brake lights, the car was marked by the word "Rolex" and two crowns in gold / yellow typeface. During another race in Suzuka, a photo shows a Rolex-sponsored car drafting a Ford GT40 (the word "Rolex" appears along the bottom of the front hood). In 1970, similar marks appear on a car racing in the Fuji International Golden Race 200, the Tsukuba All Japan Driver Championship and the NET Speed races.





By 1972, Tudor sponsorship was once again prominently displayed on a car, this season during the Fuji Masters 250 (Rolex seems to have disappeared from the livery at this point). In 1976, a GRD 34 racing car was marked "Tudor by Rolex" prominently on the hood. The side of the car's spoiler / wing was marked "Tudor Time Machines." The driver of this car was Tetsu Ikuzawa and he took the checkered flag twice that season.
Beginning with top photo for this paragraph: 1972 Tudor sponsored car. Remaining photos, 1976 "Tudor by Rolex" sponsored car, including a checkered flag finish.


 
Focus on June 1, 1969: A Legendary Tudor Racing Victory at Suzuka



Top: the group photo ahead of the 1969 Suzuka race. Bottom:The two Tudor drivers during the group photo (middle and right), note the shield emblem on their uniforms.
At 9:30am on a sunny day in June, 80 drivers representing 40 race cars assemble for a group photo at the start of the Suzuka 1000km endurance race. The prior day, during qualifying rounds, the Tudor Watch Racing Team took second in the lineup. The drivers for the Tudor team are Tomohiko Tsutsumi and Jiro Yoneyama. Yoneyama has already won a race with the Porsche 906 earlier in the year. In the group photo, Tsutsumi and Yoneyama appear seated just over the left shoulder of a driver who speaks at a podium. On their racing suits there is a red Tudor shield emblem embroidered on the left side of the chest. The driver at the podium is Kenjiro Tanaka, who races for Taki Racing Team. A French watch brand, Yema, sponsored that team. Their patch is on the right side of Tanaka's chest.








Top: the Tudor car seen from above during qualifying rounds, note the Rose/Shield emblem. Middle: the Tudor team pushing the car, likely to the race start. Bottom: the "L'Mans start," the Tudor car is second from the bottom in the lineup. All photos during the 1969 Suzuka 1000.
The race opens with a "Le Mans" start where the drivers stand across the track from their cars. When signaled that the race has begun, they run across the track, get in their cars, start their engines, and head out. For this competition, the race begins at 10am. The vehicle in pole position, the Taki Racing Lola T70, struggles at the outset. By 10:30 they've fallen to fourth place and the car is out of the race before 11am (likely due to engine trouble).

This clears the way for the Tudor Porsche to take the lead. By noon, the Tudor car is in second place, though, overtaken by the number 12 car driven by Totumi Takatake and Yoshifumi Kikua. The race is clearly a dynamic one. By 1 o'clock, though, the number 12 car is also out of the race, allowing the Tudor to retake the lead.









Top: a possible pit stop or driver swap for the Tudor team. Remaing photos show racing action. All photos from the 1969 Suzuka 1000.
This particular race was selected for inclusion in a series of magazines commemorating the "Best 100 Races" in Japan. For this reason, many photos of the Tudor car and team are available. We see from a photo of a possible driver swap that the Tudor race uniform was also embroidered on the back with two lines of text reading "Tudor Watch Racing Team." The helmet of someone kneeling at the gullwing door is also marked "Tudor."

Perhaps more striking is an extremely interesting icon used to represent the watch brand on the Porsche. The year 1969 marked a transition in which the Tudor Rose icon gave way to the Tudor Shield (I provide a few more details about this in a prior post). Someone cleverly designed an emblem for the Tudor Porsche which mixed these two icons. It is a yellow / gold rose surrounded by a shield. This emblem sits just above the word "Tudor" and between the headlights on the car's bonnet. It is also the emblem embroidered on the driver's uniforms.

After 1 o'clock, the Tudor Porsche never relinquished the lead.






Top: the Tudor team takes the checkered flag. Middle: Tudor drivers wear laurels at the top of the winner's podium. Bottom: the top three teams ride in a "train" through the crowd in order to close out the event. All photos the 1969 Suzuka 1000.
For more than four hours, the car was at the head of the pack. Tudor's driver was so excited when crossing the finish line, he flashed the Porsche's headlights. The racing official holding the checkered flag was on the pavement. He, too, was extremely excited. He jumped in the air while waving the flag.

The top three teams were on the podium by 5:25 and they were rewarded with a wreath of laurels. The Tudor team wore them bandolier style, which allowed unobstructed view of the Shield / Rose emblem. They waved to the crowd. They were then paraded around the crown in a "mini train." They appear dry, so it is unlikely the tradition of a "champagne shower" took place.

 
 
 
Conclusion

For at least a decade, spanning the 1960s and 1970s, Rolex and Tudor directly sponsored race cars in multiple venues in Japan. In many ways, this was emblematic of the era. Following defeat in World War II, the country began a period often referred to as an "economic miracle" involving rapidly rising incomes. Rolex and Tudor both participated in this upswing through the venue of car racing.

The effort was not without complications. During an interview conducted in his later years, Tsutsumi mentioned a controversial moment in his relationship with Rolex / Tudor. He said, "When I signed the contract with the team, they gave me a high-end Tudor watch, but I'm poor. So I usually wore a cheap domestic watch and kept my Tudor watch safe. When they found out about it, I was asked, 'Why aren't you using my watch?' That made me angry. It's embarrassing. He's from England, so he knew what motorsport meant, and he knew what to do with the exposure. I was scolded and finally said, 'Oh, I'm a pro.' I wasn't. Looking back on it now, my mindset was still that of an amateur. Today's drivers are probably well aware of that, but it was around this time that such professionalism took root in the domestic racing world. Even so, Japan was still an underdeveloped country in racing." (Side note: repeated controversies over wearing of jewelry in modern F1 races suggests Tsutsumi's watch wearing decision was consistent with a longstanding practice in motorsport.)

Tudor marketing materials containing historical photos of the racing team.
Despite any misunderstandings, the 1960s and 70s witnessed a long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship between Rolex, Tudor and the racing community in Japan. Indeed, a photo of promotional materials suggests Tudor did leverage its racing heritage in Japan as part of its marketing strategy. Also, in the same interview where Tsutsumi described confusion over which watch he should wear while racing, he noted that Tudor sponsorship meant he did not have to work as many jobs just to make ends meet while racing. From this perspective, Rolex / Tudor sponsorship in the earliest years of Japanese motorsport was part of a larger, longstanding, brand commitment to support exporation, adventure and the arts; a commitment which continues to this day.

Sources
AUTO SPORT Archives, Best 100 Race in Japan: '69, vol, 48, 2008.
Discord link

My book on the history of Rolex marketing is now available on Amazon! It debuted as the #1 New Release in its category. You can find it here.

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Comments

  1. Fascinating journey through Rolex and Tudor's motorsport history in Japan! Their dynamic sponsorship and iconic emblems truly left an indelible mark on the racing scene Even have see some of races with my eyes in International Air Cargo Services office and thats really awesome and the vehicle is very genuine.

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