At 6'6", William "Big Willie" Andrew Robinson III — a bowler hat perched atop his head, his voice booming — cut an imposing figure among the youth of South Central Los Angeles during the 1970s. That figure both belied and contributed to his mission, which was to end gang violence and racial unrest through drag racing. Robinson died this past Saturday after a short illness. He was 70.
For a life lived in the furtherance of "peace through racing," as was his mantra, Big Willie should get the Jalopnik Peace Prize. If there were such a thing.
His seemed an impossible task in a city whose racial entrenchment began decades before. Post-war racial violence in Los Angeles traced its roots to the 1920s, when blacks began to exit a claustrophobic ghetto, seeking elbow room in traditionally white areas, and were met with fists, blackjacks, knives, and gasoline bombs.
For Mexican-Americans, the Zoot Suit Riot of 1943 was a flashpoint of minority tensions. The head of a Los Angeles Country Sheriff's commission at the time, E. Duran Ayres, insisted Mexican Americans inherited "naturally violent" tendencies from the "bloodthirsty Aztecs" who practiced human sacrifice. As such, Ayres suggested, Mexican Americans couldn't help but commit violent acts despite education or vocational training. The city's tabloid media seized on such commentary, touting "The Mexican Problem" as an existential threat to the city.
For blacks, the violence escalated after 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned the enforcement of "restrictive covenants" that had prevented homeowners from selling property to black families. Such clauses had kept blacks from owning property outside a boxlike area bordered by four thoroughfares: Main Street, Slauson Avenue, Alameda Street and Washington Avenue, and in Watts.
By the 1950s, gangs, from white enclaves stalked black residents who dared wander into bordering neighborhoods. Sometimes these gangs launched fierce firebomb attacks inside nascent mixed-race neighborhoods to send a message — don't even think of living here. And then, just as the Mafia once fought back against attacks on Italian Americans by Irish gangs, black and Mexican (and Asian) mutual protection clubs sprang up. Just like the Mafia, these clubs grew, organized and, with the injection of dope-slinging cash, morphed into the feared Los Angeles street gangs we know today — the Crips and the Bloods, the Mexican Mafia, the Wah Ching. Their expansion throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s enveloped city residents in a maelstrom of violence.
Yet, within this hotpot of bloodshed, racial turbulence, and social mistrust, countless Los Angeles residents — rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Mexican — lived parallel lives, building, tuning, customizing, and racing cars. Could this common thread form a lifeline out of the widening catastrophe of street violence and cultural disease? Big Willie Robinson thought it could.
Robinson's crusade began in 1966, as LA residents and politicians were growing desperate for ideas to vent the inner-city pressure cooker. Reeling from the 1965 Watts riots, slammed with a public-relations nightmare and alarmed by upticks in organized street crime, local officials including LAPD brass and future-mayor Tom Bradley (then a councilman) noted the local street-racing scene attracted an integrated crowd. They approached Robinson — who by then had made a name in East LA's street-racing underground — to pitch a novel idea.
At the officials' urging, Robinson, a Vietnam veteran and member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, staged a series of quasi-legal street races at midnight on Fridays, bringing community racers — "good guys and bad guys," he would later say — together with police. More than 10,000 people showed up on the first night, double that on the second, according to reports at the time.
Thus was born the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, an organization open to anyone, demanding only a pledge to race under safety supervision and abstain from alcohol, drugs, fighting and "squirreling" — acting stupid in a car while showing off — during events. Robinson, a New Orleans native, cultivated a strong street persona, interfacing with gang leaders and police to quell violence and keep participants in line. The program was so successful in diffusing neighborhood heat, it's believed to have aided Los Angeles in keeping order after the assassination of Martin Luther King, while other cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit saw spikes in racial unrest.
By 1971, Robinson and wife Tomiko, who was also his assistant, secretary, and queen to his king-of-the-drags act, often partook in races themselves in his-and-hers Hemi Daytona Chargers. Together, they championed the creation of Brotherhood Raceway Park on Terminal Island in the LA harbor, which gave street rivals a neutral ground on which to settle beefs non-violently. The track attracted a following drawn to the camaraderie and cheap entry fee.
In the decades that followed, Robinson presided over the BRP action, enforcing positive vibes through sheer command presence. During the 1980s and 1990s, BRP also became ground zero for LA's burgeoning import tuner scene. The track closed in 1995. Tomiko died in 2007.
"When it comes to wheels, there's no color barrier," Robinson told a camera crew for a Discovery special during the 1990s. "I've had top gang leaders tell me, 'Willie, you give us a place that we can hang out, race and have fun, we'll help you keep the peace."
Ultimately, Big Willie Robinson couldn't do it all himself. Despite his efforts, gang violence continued to plague the city, and South Central again erupted in 1992. A recent plan to reopen the track, with added space for motocross, road racing and even boat racing, remained beyond his grasp.
But Robinson's effort to affect positive change was unwavering, as was his confidence that a mutual love of cars could conquer the most intractable social issues. His milieu was the drag strip, and his approach to managing conflict was the simple, unequivocal calculus of a stopwatch.
For that, Big Willie's humongous presence will live forever, at top dead center of our hearts.