Two muscle cars rip down the road, the street racers gunning for an unseen finish line somewhere in the distance. Behind them, a crowd of onlookers, among them Big Willie Robinson, cheer on the competitors.
This scene — typical of a race staged by Robinson, the founder of the Brotherhood of Street Racers — is actually a tapestry, one commissioned by former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, himself an automotive enthusiast.
In recent years, this 20-foot-long piece of art had become an enticing bit of lore in the story of Robinson, the subject of “Larger Than Life,” a seven-part podcast by The Times that documented the street racer’s effort to bring peace to an L.A. torn apart by the Watts riots.
The tapestry was auctioned in 2006 after Chandler’s death, fetching $23,000. But its whereabouts after the sale were unknown — until Brotherhood member Fabian Arroyo stumbled upon the artwork at Back in the Day Classics, a car and memorabilia shop in Orange.
“It gave me the chills, just seeing it,” said Arroyo, who happened to be nearby and decided to check out the shop. “The best way [to describe it] would be like if you saw something from King Tut and you discovered it.”
Commissioned by Chandler around 1990, the tapestry was created by artists Keith Collins and Richard Pietruska, who made several automotive-themed pieces for the former publisher. Titled “Street Racers,” it was publicly unveiled at “The Car/The Art,” an art show held at the Citadel in Commerce in 1991, according to Collins.
“The way it’s done is very much like a mosaic — like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Collins. “But we used pieces of carpet. Every color you see is a piece of carpet. It is all seamed together.”
Chandler, whose family long owned The Times, was a friend of Robinson’s and also collected cars and raced professionally. His automotive collection, including the tapestries, was displayed at his museum in Oxnard, the Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife.
The tapestry was purchased at the 2006 auction by Back in the Day Classics owner Ray Claridge, according to the shop’s general manager, Tony Martinez. He said the artwork had long been stored because there was no wall large enough to accommodate it until the business moved to its new digs in Orange.
Martinez was there the day Arroyo chanced upon the artwork, and had a laugh over the street racer’s astonishment.
“We were all pretty amazed by the way it came about,” Martinez said.
As for the serendipity of his discovery, Arroyo had a theory: “I think Willie has a part in this.”