Interesting Time To Come With Two Watchmaking Sponsors At the Detroit Grand Prix

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
interesting time to come with two watchmaking sponsors at the detroit grand prix

Starting with the upcoming Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race, the highest levels of sports car and prototype road racing in the U.S. will operate under a single series. The Grand Am and American LeMans Series racing organizations have merged and are now operating as the United SportsCar Championship, sanctioned by IMSA and controlled by the France family that owns NASCAR and a number of first tier racetracks around the United States. Tudor, Rolex’s less expensive (but still costly) brand of luxury watches, signed on to be the USCC series title sponsor, which will create an interesting situation when the trophies are handed out after the USCC race in Detroit on May 31st. While the USSC has Tudor as a series sponsor, another company that makes watches, Shinola, is a sponsor and “key partner” of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. Shinola is the official timepiece of the CDBIGP, it provides all of the timekeeping services for qualifying and racing on Grand Prix weekend and winners of all of the races will receive commemorative Shinola watches. Races that weekend include two IndyCar races, a Tudor United Sports Car Championship race, a Pirelli World Challenge series race and a race of Robbie Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck series.

It’s pretty obvious that Shinola is taking a page from Rolex’s use of motorsports to sell pricey timepieces. Stick and ball athletes want a championship ring. Sports car racers want one of the Rolex watches given to winners of the Daytona endurance race.

Shinola’s sponsorship of the Detroit Grand Prix makes a lot of sense for both the company and the race organizers. Shinola, a brand name revived from the former shoe polish company by Fossil watch founder Tom Kartsotis, was founded in part to take advantage of Detroit as a brand. All Shinola products are branded “Shinola Detroit” and Kartsotis leases a floor in the Taubman building of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit’s midtown section, where they assemble watches from Swiss movements and Chinese components. That building is also known as the Argonaut Bldg and it formerly housed General Motors Laboratory and Harley Earl’s design staff at GM. Shinola bicycles are also assembled in Detroit and the company has gone from 4o local employees to 175 in less than a year. Detroit, the city, the culture and the image, are important parts of Shinola’s overall branding as is sourcing as many American made supplies as is possible. In addition to watches and bicycles, Shinola sells high quality leather goods.

The word “Detroit” is symbolic of a lot of things, the Big 3 domestic automakers and a bankrupt hollowed out city come to mind but if there is one thing Detroit is, it’s authentic. That’s what Kartsotis found out when he commissioned some consumer research. Study subjects were presented with three pens of apparently equal quality and told that they were made in China, the U.S.A., and Detroit and were priced at $5, $10, and$15 respectively. “People picked the Chinese pen over the USA pen because it was cheaper,” Kartsotis said. “But when offered the Detroit pen, they were willing to pay the higher price point.” With Detroit so much a part of their company’s image, it’s not surprising that they worked out a sponsorship deal with the Detroit Grand Prix organizers.

When Tudor’s deal with the USCC was announced, I wondered what impact that deal would have on Shinola’s sponsorship of the Detroit race. That question was answered today when the CDBIGP held a promotional event with some race drivers in connection with family day at the Detroit auto show. Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball were there from the IndyCar series, as were Johnny O’Connell and Andy Pilgrim, who will be racing for hometown Cadillac in the Pirelli World Challenge race, along with Todd Napieralski, who races a Camaro in the same series. Before meeting with the press and then with the public, the drivers were taken on a tour of the Shinola facility and presented with watches. Perhaps that explains why there weren’t any drivers from the Tudor sponsored USCC race at the press event.

Tudor USCC racers may not have gotten a freebie watch today, but as part of today’s event the announcement was made that Shinola would again be the official timepiece and timekeeper of the race, and sponsor the Shinola Victory Circle at this year’s Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. Mention was made that “all race winners during the course of the weekend will be presented with a Shinola”. That means that the folks at Tudor and their bosses at Rolex will get to watch someone else’s watch get presented to the winners in a race series they sponsor, in front of a sign bearing the Shinola logo. Somehow I’m pretty sure that Tudor’s post-race press release will not mention the winners’ timepieces and it will be interesting to see if race organizers cover up the Shinola logos behind the podium during the Tudor USCC race’s award presentation.

Now while both Tudor and Shinola sell watches that this guy more used to $10 Timexes would consider expensive, they don’t actually compete in the same market segment. Shinolas are quality watches, made in limited, numbered runs, but they cost between ~$500 and $1,000, far from the horological high end. Tudors, our watch collecting Editor in Chief pro tempore tells me, start at about $5,000. If you’ve ever seen post-race ceremonies, you’ve probably seen the “hat dance” that goes on, with the top finishers being handed baseball cap after baseball cap to make sure that all the relevant sponsors get their logo on the winners’ head. Perhaps in time we’ll start seeing different brands of watches getting slipped on and off the winners’ wrists.

Shinola leather, coming to a steering wheel near you soon?

Kartsotis and his company have invested millions in setting down roots in the Motor City, making Detroit part of their brand and becoming part of the business community here. One role in that community that until now Shinola has not taken on is that of a supplier to the auto industry but that may change. At the Grand Prix press event a Shinola rep handed me a thumb drive, the standard form for press kits these days. It was wrapped in the Horween leather used in Shinola’s products and it was embossed with the Shinola logo. The quality of the leather was such and it was sewn in a manner that made me ask if it had been wrapped and sewn at their Detroit facility. She told me that indeed it was. When I asked if they were looking into making leather steering wheel wraps she just smiled.

Shinola does already have some form of business relationship with Ford Motor Company. The watch company has made a limited edition watch commemorating the Mustang’s 50th anniversary, and a significant part of the Lincoln display at the NAIAS was set aside for a Shinola boutique with examples of many of their products. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the not too distant future we see a Lincoln Shinola edition with leather trim supplied by the Detroit startup.

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  • Bball40dtw Bball40dtw on Jan 27, 2014

    I'm so oblivious to watch culture. I wear the watch my wife bought me when we were dating. That was 9 years ago and it still works. This article and comments have certainly made me do some google, ebay, and amazon searches though.

  • Low_compression Low_compression on Jan 27, 2014

    As the owner of several fountain pens and one mechanical watch, I have a lot harder time justifying the watch. Both require more work to use than their modern counterparts, they are more fussy and fragile. However, I have never written with a ballpoint, roller ball, or gel pen that came close to the ease of writing with a fountain pen. On the other hand, I have quartz watches that I can leave in a drawer for 9 months, and when I pull it out to wear (usually for a job that I don't want to bang my mech watch around on) it's dead nuts accurate. A $5000+ mechanical chronograph can't come close to matching that kind of accuracy. I've regulated my watch to +/- 1min/week, but that's still not great. I think there is a lot to be said for the craftsmanship in both items, but when a tool can't do it's job as well as the new tech, it's awful hard to justify the massive expense.

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