When Hollywood stuntman Stan Barrett drove the Budweiser Rocket on his quest to become the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound on land, he was wearing two Rolex watches. Both were gifts from his friend, film star Paul Newman, who, concerned for Barrett’s safety, could not bring himself to attend the run at Edwards Air Force Base, in California, on December 17 1979.
The late actor’s daughter Nell Newman thinks the watches were “meant to protect” Barrett. The “lucky charms” — a GMT-Master “Pepsi” and a Daytona Reference 6262 — did their job. Barrett completed the drive safely, reaching an estimated speed of 739.66mph, the threshold of the sound barrier. “Paul was such a part of my life and those watches were really important to me,” says Barrett, now 79. “It was like a part of him was with me in that rocket car.”
The pieces are up for sale in Sotheby’s Important Watches auction in New York on December 9, along with a yellow gold Rolex GMT Reference 1675 that August Busch, chief executive of brewer Anheuser-Busch — lead sponsor of Barrett’s record attempt — presented to the driver after the event. The watch is engraved with the words “Stan Barrett — Driver — Budweiser Rocket Car 739.66MPH December 17 1979”.
Sotheby’s has set estimates of $50,000-$100,000 for the 1977 stainless steel GMT-Master Reference 1675 and $300,000-$500,000 for the stainless steel 1969 Daytona, but watches connected to Newman have achieved millions in recent years. Jonathon Burford, senior watches specialist at Sotheby’s, says the pieces are significant both for their connection to the actor and because Barrett wore them on his “extraordinary journey” to try to break the land speed record. “These were Paul giving a part of himself to Stan as a sign of good luck and friendship, and that makes them hugely interesting,” Burford says.
Barrett was Burt Reynolds’ double on the US television show Dan August when he was called to meet Newman about being his double on the 1971 film Sometimes a Great Notion. It was to be the start of what Nell describes as a “bromance”.
“They must have been brothers from a different mother or something like that,” she says. “They adored each other. Who wouldn’t adore the man that takes the fall for you on the movie sets?”
Paul Newman gifted Barrett the GMT-Master after the stuntman gave his own away. Barrett had bought his father-in-law Dave McCoy, who owned the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area in California, a GMT-Master. But when he heard that McCoy had lost it, he replaced it with the one from his own wrist. “I told [Paul] and, two days later, a GMT-Master arrived in the mail,” he recalls.
Barrett — who was Newman’s double on films including 1972 western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and what he calls the “terrible” 1980 disaster movie When Time Ran Out . . . — also received Newman’s own Daytona on another occasion. “He just went upstairs, came back down and gave me the watch,” Barrett says. “He said, ‘This is a great watch, but it doesn’t keep time.’”
Nell says her father wanted to give Barrett “a memento of their friendship”.
“When he was going to do that crazy drive, I think that was his way of saying, ‘Make it through this and come back’,” she explains.
Newman, who had helped to secure sponsorship for the rocket car, had the caseback of the GMT-Master engraved to commemorate Barrett’s achievement. The inscription reads “STAN BARRETT 739MPH MACH 1.0206 12-17-79”. However, the run was not recognised as an official record.
These were not the only watches that the actor gifted. Newman’s “Paul Newman” Daytona, which set a world record for a wristwatch sold at auction when it fetched $17.8mn at Phillips in 2017, was consigned by Nell’s ex-boyfriend James Cox. Newman, who was also a racing car driver, had passed on the 1968 Daytona Reference 6239 with “exotic” dial, given to him by his wife Joanne Woodward when he was getting into motorsport. At that time, Cox was rebuilding a treehouse for Newman. “One day, Dad came out and asked James what time it was and James said it was a ‘hair past a freckle’, because he didn’t have a watch,” says Nell. About a week later, Newman gave him the watch.
Phillips sold a Reference 6263 “Big Red” Daytona, worn by Newman and gifted to his youngest daughter Clea Newman Soderlund in 2008, for $5.5mn in 2020.
Nell is unsure what her father would have made of the high level of interest in watches he wore. “He was a man who didn’t like people to make a fuss over him,” she says. “One of the reasons he loved racing was because, as he would say, it doesn’t matter what colour your eyes are, it’s just the fastest guy on the track and everybody’s treated equally . . . He could be a normal person.”
Barrett says Newman, known for his philanthropy, was “such a humble guy and he never took himself seriously”. It was a “tough decision” for Barrett to part with the watches, but he plans to give a portion of the proceeds to charitable causes, including the Nell Newman Foundation and the Slavic Gospel Association. He hopes the pieces end up in a museum where he could “visit them”. “It was a wonderful friendship and those watches were a big part of it,” he says.