Sir Jackie Stewart on Rolexes, Racing, and the Greatest Antique Car Show On the Planet

Few racing drivers can claim the kind of success of Sir Jackie Stewart, who took home no fewer than 27 Formula One titles in his career between 1965 and 1973; fewer still survived long enough to talk about it four decades later. Such is the unique legacy of Stewart, aka “The Flying Scot,” whose victories in motor racing are matched only by his vast contributions to improving the safety of the sport, and saving countless drivers’ lives as a result.

Stewart competed with four teams throughout his racing career, but his longest continuous relationship has been with Rolex, which began in 1968 (three years after he acquired his first Rolex Day-Date) and continues to this day. As part of his longstanding partnership with the brand, whose ties to motorsport go back to Sir Malcolm Campbell’s land speed trials in the 1930s, Stewart will be on hand for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the Rolex-sponsored antique automobile show which kicks off this weekend in California. Ahead of the festivities, we Zoomed with Sir Jackie to talk about his incredible career, his watch collection, and the state of Formula One.

How did you come to acquire your first Rolex?
I was a Rolex owner before I ever joined Rolex, which gives the integrity of it a little boost, I think. I did quite well in qualifying in Indianapolis and John Mecom, who was entering the cars that I was driving, took me down to Houston in his private jet, which was pretty unusual in 1966. The next morning, he took me into town and said, ‘I’ve got to do some shopping, do you want to come with me?’ So I went with him, and we walked into a Rolex establishment and he said, ‘Listen, I’ve got a surprise for you, I want to give you a Rolex watch for your great performance.’ And he gave me an 18 c gold Day-Date. And that was that. I had my first Rolex watch, which was a real thrill because I was running around with modest watches at that time.

The first of many, no doubt.
I’m not a collector, because I don’t go out and buy other watches or anything like that, but I’m very fond of my watches, obviously. I’ve got a Daytona on right now, it’s rose gold with a black face, and that’s one of my favourite watches.

Do you ever use the chronograph function on your Daytona?
No, because I get people who do that for me nowadays. In Formula One we seldom have to do it ourselves, because it’s on the screen all the time. But it’s just a lovely watch, a great looker apart from anything else. It’s something very special.

What’s special about the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance?
Well, the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance has now been going on for a great number of years, and it is probably the most respected Concours d’Elegance in the world. So there’s a wonderful collection of cars and I’ve been there with Rolex for a good many years. The history of the cars involved and the integrity of them, and some of them I had actually driven. One of the ones two or three years ago was a Ferrari that I won the World Sportscar Championship in at Brands Hatch. And the owner wanted me to drive it across the judges’ platform, which I did, and it won the whole thing. So I’ve got a love affair with Pebble Beach, that’s for sure.

What are you looking forward to at this year’s event?
Every year people like Ralph Lauren come to Pebble Beach because it’s such a collection of cars and he’s an enthusiast. He loves beautiful cars, but only very special ones. He’s got a Ferrari, for example, that I used to race in Australia, and won a major event in at Surfers Paradise. And there are lots of other people who are great collectors. It’s just part of their year to be at Pebble Beach. They have auctions there as well, and some of the auctions are the highest bidders of the year for Ferraris that sell for hideous amounts of money. I drove the odd Ferrari, and I never thought it was worth that much, but they’re now hugely expensive. Rolex chooses somewhere like Pebble Beach because it is the best. It’s a wonderful weekend.

How do you think that F1 racing in the ‘60s and early ‘70s compares with today? Has the sport lost anything?
No, I don’t think it’s lost anything at all. People tend to look over their shoulder and think it was great in those days, but I think it’s better today than it’s ever been. But it is different, no doubt. The biggest difference is that even at the highest level of motorsport, which is Formula One, it’s safer today than it’s ever been. In my day, my wife and I counted 57 people who were killed driving racing cars during my period. And they were all friends of ours. Now, I think Formula One Grand Prix racing is the best example of risk management of any sport. I mean, more people die falling off horses than they do in Formula One Grand Prix racing. There was a huge accident at Silverstone this year where Verstappen had a huge collision with Lewis Hamilton. The car was written off, and he had I think it was 67 G’s of impact. Now, if it had been in my day, he would have been dead.

That’s incredible. But it must have been a fun scene at times.
When I was involved it was the swinging ‘60s, it was Carnaby Street, it was the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and everybody came to Monte Carlo. Princess Grace brought Frank Sinatra and David Niven and all the big stars. And in those days all the girls were dressed very modestly – in other words, they had very little on. I made the joke that in my day motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe. But it was a wonderful time, it was a very colourful time.

What’s one of your best memories from those days?
Winning my first ever Formula One Grand Prix was a big one. And it happened to be the Italian Grand Prix in Milan, and the crowd there is more passionate than any crowd in the world. And I, luckily won the Grand Prix in 1965, which was my first year in Formula One, so that was a big deal. And winning my first pole position in Formula One happened in 1966 in Monaco, and that’s a great place to do it. I won the race and I was presented with a Rolex Daytona as the fastest qualifier. So those are memories that I’ll always treasure.

You used to come to Canada quite a lot back then, didn’t you?
I did Formula One and Can-Am. I drove Can-Am with Lola against the McLarens who were, unfortunately, considerably faster and better. But I won two or three races, which was fine. But it was a tiring period for me because I was still racing Formula One, I was doing Formula Two, I was doing touring cars, GT cars, Can-Am cars there in Canada at Mosport. I was burned out that year. I crossed the Atlantic 67 times doing Formula One and ABC’s Wide World of Sports and doing Canadian television for certain Grand Prix, as well as driving. But it was a fantastic period of my life, a great learning curve.

What’s your take on electric cars? Do you think they’ll measure up to the ones you drove?
I have driven electric cars, but I haven’t driven an electric racing car. I think the lack of sound is one of the things that I miss, you know. You might think Formula One is too noisy sometimes, but it’s alive. It’s a fantastic sound. And that I miss. So it’s a different business altogether. But I think it’s done a good thing for the environmental issue because now, we will definitely be moving into a new energy supply of some kind. And Formula One will probably lead that because we handle change faster than any other activity. I know that whether it’s Mercedes or Red Bull, or whether it’s Aston Martin or Renault, all the big companies are deeply involved in that. So I think I think the sport is going to live for a very long time, and it’s more colourful and more exciting than it’s ever been. I feel very privileged to still be part of it all.