Phoenix, AZ — After opening in November 2019, Phoenix Art Museum’s hugely popular Legends of Speed exhibit — an unprecedented selection of more than 20 cars spanning six decades and raced by legends that include Dan Gurney, Stirling Moss, A. J. Foyt and Mario Andretti — ended amidst the museum’s closing as part of COVID-19 precautions. Had its one-week extension moved forward, the museum’s first-ever major display of racing cars would have continued to draw crowds.
To meet that ongoing interest, the museum is offering a Legends of Speed virtual tour. Rather than simply share the link, we reached out to famed racer Lyn St. James — a longtime friend of Vintage Motorsport who served as co-curator for the exhibit — for her personal insights about it.
VM: How did the idea for the exhibit originate?
LSJ: At the 2018 Monterey Rolex Reunion, Carter Emerson (Co-Chair of the Phoenix Art Museum Board of Trustees) introduced himself, told me of his desire to create an exhibit of legendary racing cars at the museum and asked me if I would help him. I had served on the organizing committee of the Arizona Concours, but after it was discontinued in 2017, I really didn’t have any car-related project in my home area.
VM: What was your role?
LSJ: I had a number of meetings and calls with Carter and I could see how truly passionate he was about the historically important racing cars and drivers of the early years. He asked me to help him define and select the cars, then contact the car owners in hopes they would loan them to the museum for the projected exhibit time of November 2019 to March 2020. I also did a considerable amount of research on the cars and the drivers associated with them, plus I helped create the Legends of Speed name for the exhibit.
VM: How were the cars selected?
LSJ: Carter started with a list of about 40 cars, although we knew there was a maximum of 22 that could fit into the exhibit area. I served as his “other voice” in helping determine which cars were more historically significant than others, placing critical importance not only on the racing history of each car, but also the racing drivers associated with the cars. We wanted to be sure to have as many of the marques represented as possible. There was an incredible number of details to coordinate with the owners and the museum staff, as well as verifying the history of the cars.
Editors’ Note: Following the exhibit’s opening, Emerson told the Arizona Business Journal that it was “a collection that no one will ever get to see put together again,” adding that the type of exhibit is “absolutely unique” for an art museum. Get Emerson’s video overview of the featured cars and their histories from his opening lecture.
VM: You must have had favorites.
LSJ: With such an amazing collection, it could be tough to have favorites, but not really that tough. The 1967 Gurney Eagle makes my heart stop every time I see it. The story of that car, the story of Dan Gurney and how he’s weaved into the 1965 Indy 500 winning Lotus Ford is fantastic! And of course, the 1927 Bugatti Type 35B, owned and raced by Helle Nice (The Bugatti Queen) was a personal favorite and one that I felt was important to include.
VM: Any closing thoughts?
LSJ: It takes a community to make something happen, but it also takes someone who’s passionate, knowledgeable and in a position to influence decisions to pull something together. The exhibit was very well received, not only for many new people who might not have been to the Phoenix Art Museum before, but also for members and regular visitors to the museum. It was hugely successful, and I thought the docents were incredibly enthusiastic and did an outstanding job of learning about the cars so they could share that knowledge to the visitors.