Chronographs, which have always been a watch collector's delight, became extremely popular during the Fifties and Sixties because of two, if you like, typical applications.

The first was aviation, that is, pilot's watches. The second, and possibly the more mundane one, was motorsports, with the most famous track names still echoing in our ears. 

The same names have often marked the best-known models of watchmakers: one name for all, the legendary Rolex Daytona - whose true denomination, unknown to many, would actually be Cosmograph. But here we are, set at the starting line, with the traffic light pulsing to give us the green light. Are you ready for the race?

chronograph swiss made watch


What is a racer watch?

First of all, let's define what a racer watch is. It is usually a chronograph (and not a stopwatch), which is a timepiece that can measure intervals of time defined on command. The chronographs used in motor racing are of various kinds and types: initially, they were mechanical models, but after the discovery of quartz movements, many chronographs used in sports competitions, and not only car-based, started to use quartz-based movements, which allow more precise measurement of the time intervals we want to count.

The difference between a chronograph and a stopwatch (an instrument that has always been widely used in sports competitions) is that while the first also gives you the time; in contrast, the stopwatch only records the time interval we want to measure. In summary, a chronograph represents the union of a traditional watch and a stopwatch.

The traditional difference between a "normal" chronograph and a racing watch is the presence of the tachymeter scale, a scale that was used, together with the measurements of partial times, to calculate in a reasonably approximate way - the speed. We can still add that although the first real chronographs were born in the nineteenth century to measure horse races, a sport that the King of France was passionate about, the first modern use of the chronograph as an indispensable measuring instrument for car racing dates back to 1962. 

It was the famous Heuer Autavia (Automobile-Aviation), the first modern racer watch designed by Jack Heuer, which combined a chronograph with an external bezel with different scales that could be chosen by the user. And the tachymeter scale became one of the main features of the racer watches.

Which watch is used in a race?

Davosa vintage racing swiss made automatic watch

Despite the romantic image that surrounds them, the use of chronograph watches on the racetrack has now undoubtedly become a distant memory: today there are much more sophisticated instruments, precise and easy to consult for a driver or a mechanic in the pits than a watch: but traditionally, and also in the films that feature the world of motor racing, the element represented by the watch has always had an important function.

For example, apart from the Autavia we just mentioned, there is a celebrated racing watch that owes its notoriety not so much to its (excellent) technical features, but to the fact that it was worn in a famous film. We are talking about the TAG Heuer Monaco, worn by Steve McQueen in the famous 1971 movie, "Le Mans." This timepiece has a curious story: Steve McQueen was a Rolex enthusiast, and apart from the movie, he never wore the watch, which he gave on the last day of shooting to his mechanic Haig Alltounian. And the Monaco was sold at an auction in 2020 for about $2.2 million, making it the most expensive TAG Heuer timepiece ever sold.

Aside from this story that lies somewhere between history and gossip, there are a few main features that are traditionally found on all racer watches:

  • Highly readable dial. All racer watch dials have significant color contrasts and highly visible markers so that the indications sought can be seen at a glance;
  • Tachymeter scale on the bezel. An easily readable tachymeter scale is applied to the bezel of the watch and allows the wearer to make calculations on the fly regarding the speed reached on the track;
  • Chronograph function. Of course, a racer watch has a chronograph function - that is, a stopwatch that can be used as desired independently of the time function. This is usually represented by an independent second hand, plus two or three other indicators;
  • Inclined dial. Many early racer watches had slanted dials so that measurements could be clearly displayed without the driver having to take his hands off the wheel;
  • Rallye strap. Again, this is a legacy from the past, where pilots wore watches with straps that allowed the wrist to breathe, so they featured sturdy leather straps pierced by large holes. Today, the majority of racer watches are worn on steel bracelets.

How do you use a racing watch?

There are two main ways to use a racing watch. The first is to calculate the time and any split periods to complete a specific action, such as a lap of the track. For example, you calculate how long it takes a car to go around the track, and by measuring this performance and comparing it with the stats obtained in previous laps, you can understand if the vehicle is competitive or has problems. More advanced chronographs like flybacks could be used to calculate shorter intervals as well within this longer period.

The second primary use of a racer watch involves the use of the tachymeter scale. This scale helps you measure the time it takes a car to travel a distance of one kilometer (or one mile) and shows the relative speed on the outer bezel of the watch. 

To calculate the speed, if the vehicle is driving on a one-kilometer-long circuit, you start the chronograph as soon as the car crosses the start line, and you stop it as soon as the vehicle has completed one complete lap of the track. Then, by referencing the second hand on the tachometric scale placed on the bezel, you automatically find out (even if in a pretty approximate way, we must admit it) the car's speed.

In reality, as we have seen, both of these functions are now largely replaced by electronic measurements, so very few still use this function: but still, the fascination that racing watches continue to exert on motor enthusiasts - and all other watch fans - continues to be timeless and undeniable.

Davosa titanium Chronograph racing swiss made automatic watch

Best twelve racing chronograph watches under $500

Until a few years ago, a chapter with this title would have remained glaringly empty. To produce a mechanical chronograph movement (that is, just the caliber - not a complete timepiece mounting such a watch movement) a company would have spent well over this sum! Fortunately, technology has come to our aid, and to this day, you can find great chronographs with racing functions - and style - offered to the public even below the $500 mark. 

The biggest help, as you can easily guess, has come from the evolution of quartz watches. The quartz vs. automatic watches conflict of the Seventies has indeed revolutionized the industry, giving us precise and inexpensive chronograph movements, and has allowed companies to make timepieces at prices that would were just impossible before this development.

In some cases, the modern hybrid quartz movements possess technical features that make them virtually indistinguishable from their mechanical equivalents: but let's explore this selection together! 

1 - Bulova Precisionist Champlain 98B318

Since its acquisition by the Japanese giant Citizen, with which it had been working for a long time, the famous American company has put its head in the right place. It has begun to produce good watches, marked by an excellent price/quality ratio and this is the case of this model, with an air decidedly military rather than sporty. But beyond its appearance and very generous size, the Champlain has everything it takes to earn your favor, including an exceptional 262 Khz movement that makes it exceptionally accurate - with a deviation of only 10 seconds per year.

Bulova Precisionist Champlain 98B318Image credit from

2 - Omologato Panamericana 

Since the inception of this British brand, interest in its retro-styled timepieces with modern content has been growing. With a lvisual anguage that evokes iconic mid-century Italian cars, Omologato watches can't help but appeal, especially to the more nostalgic. And there are no less than four dial colors to choose from to complement your look - Rojo de Carreras, Storm Grey, Triple Black, and Swimming Pool.

Omologato Panamericana chronograph racing watch
Image credit from

3 - Tissot V8

A watch that seems to have come straight out of the past, the V8 repurposes the style of sports watches from the 1960s with a modern heart but a genuinely vintage aesthetic. The dial, with its small subdials, echoes the style of the instruments of the time. The technical features of the timepiece also include water resistance of 100 meters, a sapphire crystal, and a bezel in an English green color that looks like it was taken from a Lotus F1 of the time.

tissot chronograph swiss made racing watch
Image credit from

4 - Citizen Eco-Drive Titanium BL5551-06L

This Citizen belongs to the Eco-Drive category - quartz heart watches charged by the sun's rays (and offers an impressive six months of autonomy). The case is made of Super Titanium, a unique metal that weighs 40% less than stainless steel while maintaining the same robust characteristics of the latter. In addition to a precise chronograph movement, it also incorporates a handy perpetual calendar function.

Citizen Eco-Drive Titanium chronograph racing watch BL5551-06L
Image credit from Jomashop

5 - Seiko Flight Chronograph Watch SNA411

A Seiko that has everything and more and quickly passes in the pilot's watches category - but proves to be a beautiful tool for motor enthusiasts as well. The bezel has every set of scales to make the measurements that you like, and the bright yellow chronometer seconds hand stands out perfectly against the black dial. Another plus is its water resistance: a whopping 200 meters, making it a genuinely perfect watch for any sporty use.

Seiko Flight Chronograph Watch SNA411
Image credit from Jomashop

6 - Davosa Speedline White Chrono 16347015

A magnificent example of a racing chronograph made in Switzerland, the Speedline showcases a silver aesthetic, an immaculate and readable dial with a TriCompax display and red accents on the two second hands, and a solid and reliable Swiss movement. A sapphire crystal with an anti-reflective coating and water resistance of an impressive 100 meters completes the picture, as well as a stainless steel bracelet that complements the case.

Speedline swiss made chronograph racing watch

7 - Zodiac Grandrally Blue Panda

Zodiac draws heavily from its rich history to re-propose this beautiful timepiece with a classic mid-Sixties design, embellished by the particular deep blue color of the tachymeter scale and the two dials. The vintage effect is underlined by a leather strap with a ribbed texture that matches it perfectly. Sapphire crystal and water resistance to 100 meters complete the picture of a truly impressive timepiece.

Zodiac Grandrally Blue Panda chronograph swiss made racing watch
Image credit from

8 - Victorinox Swiss Army Alliance

From the company that produces the famous multi-purpose knives could only come a watch that is just as useful and pleasant - and just as well finished. Its aesthetics are typically practical, echoing the dictates of Bauhaus to provide an immediate and straightforward reading, facilitated by the elements emphasized by the red accents. This excellent timepiece features a Swiss chronograph movement, a 42mm steel case, and a triple-coated anti-reflective sapphire crystal.

Victorinox Swiss Army Alliance swiss made chronograph racing watch
Image credit from

9 - Orient Neo70s

If you weren't looking at the logo printed on the dial, you'd be wondering if you were looking at a Rolex Daytona from the 1970s. And indeed, this beautiful timepiece produced by the Japanese manufacturer looks a lot like it. Its black and white aesthetics with the classic panda setup can't help but captivate you, as well as the gently curved case, which reinforces its vintage taste. Too bad about the lack of a tachymeter scale, but we'll make an exception for him!

Orient Neo70s Japanesse chronograph racing watch
Image credit from

10 - Davosa Nautic Star Chrono 16347365

Yes, you're right. We did it again. But we couldn't ignore this timepiece after seeing it. A diver-style chronograph with a water resistance of 100 meters, this timepiece combines a modern, captivating aesthetic with quality chronograph functions guaranteed by the Swiss Ronda movement. In addition, it offers a high-quality black ceramic unidirectional bezel on which indexes are engraved for underwater use. No tachymeter, we're sorry - but we'll do without in this case.

Davosa Nautic Star Chronograph racing swiss made watch 16347365
11 - Yema Rallygraf Panda 

A modern watch produced by the famous French company: this Rallygraf reprises the style and design of the early seventies with a panda dial of an unmistakable style, and mounts an innovative Seiko mechaquartz mechanism. The time section is managed by a quartz mechanism, while the chronograph part has a second hand with fluid movement. To complete the retro-styled design, the watch mounts a nice Milanese mesh steel strap.

Yema Rallygraf Panda French racing watch
Image credit:

12 - Dan Henry 1964 Gran Turismo

This watch produced by the British company takes the aesthetics of the BiCompax timepieces of the sixties, with a beautiful silver dial, and develops it with a classic panda combination for the two subdials - although it is available in many other variants. It mounts a mechaquartz mechanism that combines the best of both worlds with a continuously moving seconds hand and a beautiful rice grain bracelet. And the best part is that it's also incredibly affordable to purchase.

Dan Henry 1964 Gran Turismo Chronograph racing limited edition watch
image credit:

To conclude

While racing chronographs might be obsolete today - as all watches really are - the charm they exude is undeniable. So much that, apart from the most iconic models made by the most famous Maisons, we can today enjoy the style of many microbrand watches that are designed to evoke the world smelling of gas and spent rubber of the race tracks.

Just as a final piece of advice, please remember that racer watches tend to be big and hefty, as all tool watches are, so they are less suited for the smaller-wristed between us. When choosing one, please remember this fact - and if in need, you can refer to the handy watch size guide that we have published.

Update: This article was updated on the March 24th, 2023 and is now updated for 2023.


The website is NOT affiliated in any way with Audemars Piguet, Franck Muller USA, Inc. Richard Mille or Richemont Companies, Seiko, or any other brand which is not Davosa Swiss. Rolex is a registered trademark of Rolex USA. Davosa-USA website is not an authorized dealer, reseller, or distributor for Rolex and is in NO WAY affiliated with Rolex SA or Rolex USA or any other brand besides Davosa Swiss.
November 13, 2021 — Davosa Editor

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