No doubt the legends of our sport are leaving us far too often these days.
Big Willie Robinson, the iconic southern California racer and race promoter who united people of all color and creeds in the name of drag racing, died on Saturday at 70 years of age following a lengthy, undisclosed illness.
An imposing figure if there ever was one at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds with massive 21-inch biceps and a 58-inch chest, William “Big Willie” Andrew Robinson III was the founder and president of the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, and it was racing that he utilized to bring people of all walks together. During a race, Robinson was once quoted as stating, “Ain’t no colors here, it’s all just engines.”
Robinson grew up in the segregated New Orleans area, and despite his large, athletic figure, was unable to fulfill his dream of playing football for LSU due to his color. Racial incidents, some of which involved vandalism of his prized car, sent him packing across the country to the bustling city of Los Angeles. Robinson spent two years serving as an Army Special Forces Green Beret in the Vietnam War before returning to L.A.
The infamous Watts Riots in 1965 that devastated Los Angeles heightened racial tensions, but the big man chose the peaceful route in dealing with the situation, instead using street racing to end gang violence and racial unrest and unite people that might otherwise be embittered to one another.
One year after the riots, Robinson began organizing street racing events, and right away, people of every color and of every age began showing up. The Brotherhood, founded in 1966 upon Robinson’s return from the war, conducted races on blocked off streets in East L.A. in what was then known as South Central. Interestingly, Police noted that there was less crime being carried out when Robinson’s races were being conducted, and thus, in 1968, Capt. Frank Beeson and other members of the LAPD began assisting the Brotherhood in blocking off a mile of downtown streets for all night drag racing. The first night more than 10,000 people showed up for the quasi-legal street races, and that number was doubled on the second night.
“Black, white, yellow, brown, skinheads, Nazi party members, Muslims, we got ‘em all,” Robinson once said.
The Brotherhood was open to anyone, with the only requirement being the pledge to race under safety supervision, abstain from alcohol, drugs, fighting, and squirreling (acting stupid and showing off with your car).
In the early 1970’s, the Brotherhood began lobbying the LA City Council and with the help of the Harbor Commission and L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley – also an imposingly large black man – Robinson founded the Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island located between the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach in 1974. The track used land provided by the Harbor Department and borrowed railing from the Long Beach Grand Prix course. After passing a basic safety inspection, racers could enter for just $10.
Brotherhood Raceway operated on the weekends for 21 years and many credit it as the birthplace of the import and sport compact racing movement. Like most race tracks in California however, progress spelled the demise of the Terminal Island facility in 1995 as it was replaced by a coal dock and shipping container storage lot. Despite Robinson’s valiant attempts to revive the track, the Harbor Commission opted for the money created by global trade before drag racing.
Robinson, a gentle giant despite his massive stature, was said to have three distinct trademarks during his life – his vintage “bowler” hat, his 1969 Dodge Charger named “King Daytona”, and his wife, Tomiko, who had a matching Charger and was a guiding force of the Brotherhood with her husband. It was in 2010, following the death of his beloved Tomiko that Robinson’s health reportedly began to decline.
Big Willie’s contributions to our sport are certainly immeasurable, but there’s no doubt that his visionary efforts in the 60s and 70s helped shape the sport as we know it today, and the big man will certainly be missed.