The Lone Star Le Mans: Fast Cars, Cool Watches, and One Epic Speed Date

There’s no humble way to say this: I had one of the most badass experiences of my life on Saturday morning.

It was called a hot lap, and rightly so. For about 2 minutes, just before the start of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, I got to race around the 3.4-mile-long course as a passenger in a powerful Audi R8 LMS sports car driven by Dindo Capello, an Italian driver who won Le Mans, the most famous sports car endurance race in the world, in 2003 and 2004. The 80-degree-plus temperatures and humidity, the heat emanating from the engine, and my own nervous energy combined to make it a very hot lap, indeed.

Le Mans–winning driver Dindo Capello and I hurtled around the COTA track in this Audi R8 LMS.

As we careened around the track, I could think of virtually nothing beyond the hairpin curves of the road in front of us and the conviction that Capello did not want to die any more than I did.

My thoughts naturally turned morbid because, if I err on the side of speed, we were doing about 150 miles per hour.

It’s hard to articulate what that kind of speed feels like because the experience is the very definition of visceral: muscles clench as you succumb to the g-forces around the turns; sweat rolls in long slinky rivulets down your back; the sound of the engine revving into fourth, fifth, and sixth gear feels diabolical. If you think 150 mph would feel familiar to you because we’ve all spent time in a speeding car, think again—there’s a reason I was obligated to wear a helmet and a fire suit.

Courtesy Gabriela Anastasio

Me in my fire suit, prepping for my hot lap

I have no way of knowing what I looked like while we tore around the track, but I’m sure that my expression reflected the wonder, fear, and sheer disbelief that roiled inside of me. Tell me again how I got here?

The short story is that I was a guest of Tudor, the Swiss watch brand reintroduced to the U.S. market in 2013 following a 17-year absence. A sister company to Rolex, Tudor has earned some fantastic buzz for its stylish vintage- and military-inspired timepieces, not only because they boast a top-notch build (with an association like Rolex, that goes without saying) but also for their phenomenal price positioning. The brand retails in the $3,000–$5,000 sweet spot—its most expensive watch tops out around $7,000—and retailers are gaga for it.

I learned the latter point firsthand because in Austin, I was joined by a dozen of Tudor’s best retailers—including Ben Simon from Windsor Jewelers in Charlotte, N.C.; Ben Blakeman from Blakeman’s Fine Jewelry in Rogers, Ark.; Jeff Newbauer from Kirk Jewelers in downtown Miami; and Zachary Udell from London Jewelers on New York’s Long Island. They all sang Tudor’s praises when we gathered for welcome cocktails on Friday evening at the lovely Hotel Saint Cecilia, an oasis of idiosyncratic charm located on a tree-lined street in the heart of Austin’s groovy South Congress (SoCo) neighborhood.

My trip had begun auspiciously enough on Friday morning, when I noticed that both Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame and Keanu Reeves were on my flight from LAX. We arrived at Austin in the afternoon, and I worked from the hotel’s stylishly appointed bar while my room was prepared. That night, we dined al fresco at a banquet table set out in the courtyard beneath the branches of a 300-year-old treaty oak (the second-oldest tree in Austin, or so I was told).

Al fresco dining with Tudor at Austin’s Hotel Saint Cecilia

At the dinner, I was honored to have sat next to Scott Pruett, a five-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, and his friendly wife, Judy, who are longtime friends of the Rolex and Tudor brands. Despite the fact that Pruett had a 5 a.m. wake-up call for the next day’s race (which he ended up winning, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves), he chatted with me about his wine-making business, his three kids, and the 13 Rolex watches he’s collected for winning sports car championships throughout his illustrious career.

“I always joke that racing and wine are polar opposites,” Pruett told the group. “In racing, you can make things happen. Once you get down to the last lap, you can make something happen in a big way, whether it’s good, hopefully, or whether it’s bad and you’re embarrassed about it after the fact.”

The next day, at the plush Tudor Paddock Club overlooking the COTA course, I watched Pruett lap the circuit in a space age–looking prototype sports car (the Tudor championship pits four classes against each other, including Prototype, Prototype Challenge, GT Le Mans, and GT Daytona), and realized that his words from the night before were coming to life. After lagging for most of the race, the driver/vintner (and children’s book author!) pulled it out in the final minutes to score a victory in his class as well as garner first place overall along with his regular driving partner, Memo Rojas.

 

That’s me on the winner’s platform with Lone Star Le Mans first-place winner Scott Pruett.

The news called for a celebration among our band of Tudor groupies—which we happily carried on at Smitty’s Market, a meat-eating institution in the nearby town of Lockhart, where baskets of barbecue sausages, brisket, short ribs, and turkey led to the coining of a dedicated hashtag: #meatsweats.

On the bus ride back to Hotel Saint Cecilia, I sat next to Tudor brand manager Russell Kelly, who deserves much of the credit for infusing the brand with its buzzy, in-touch-with-the-zeitgeist sensibility. He’s genuine, generous, and enthusiastic about his role at Tudor, which requires him to find ways to inject an established Swiss brand—Tudor debuted in 1946 when Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf decided to introduce a modestly priced alternative—with a fresh, contemporary image.

The association with the United SportsCar Championship is a major part of Kelly’s branding effort, but so, too, is the media outreach that’s made the brand a favorite among tastemakers and bloggers, such as Michael Williams, the founder of A Continuous Lean, who joined Tudor in Austin this past weekend.

It certainly helps that Tudor is building a reputation as a style pioneer. Closely linked with the leather and nylon (aka NATO) strap trend that’s utterly ubiquitous now, the brand unveiled a number of good-looking timepieces this year—like the Heritage Black Bay, a new dive watch that recalls the original Tudor Submariner tool watch, introduced in 1954—that have the added bonus of being extremely well priced. For retailers hoping to appeal to millennial buyers, there’s hardly a better option in the marketplace. 

Courtesy Tudor Watch

The Tudor Heritage Black Bay

Of course, I might be a little biased after my action-packed weekend with Tudor—but trust me when I say the brand and the retailers I met at the Lone Star Le Mans (most of whom also got to have their own hot lap experiences, albeit in slightly less souped-up sports cars than the Audi R8 I rode in) are as classy as they come. And you don’t have to take it from me:

“The weekend was really special and hard to sum up,” Jeff Newbauer from Miami’s Kirk Jewelers wrote in an email to me this morning. “I thought the dynamic of everyone in the group was also really good…. The highlight for me and I know probably you too was that ride in the car. My Porsche Turbo S was fast but I can’t even imagine what the Audi was like.”

Now that I’m back home in Los Angeles, even I’m finding it hard to recall the exact adrenaline rush of that spin around the track. What lingers, however, are the dreamlike memories of an extraordinary weekend: a death-defying ride in a fast car, a Texan feast among new friends, and the cool watch brand that made it all happen.