Los Angeles car culture never saw anyone like Big Willie Robinson — or needed anyone quite so much. In the mid 1960s, when baby boomers were racing hot rods and fighting each other and the cops all around town, he created the International Brotherhood of Street Racers and brought some order to the subculture. (Big Willie stood 6'6" and people listened.) After the Watts riots, his intervention was credited with helping give kids in South Los Angeles a safe outlet. He later got the city to open a drag racing strip on Terminal Island. At the 2006 memorial service for LA Times magnate Otis Chandler, himself a custom car racer and collector, Big Willie strode to the church microphone and shared some stories — completely unknown to many in the audience.
Robinson died Saturday, according to the couple of media reports I can find and the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers.
We reported yesterday that “Big Willie” Robinson, the massive mountain of a man and huge force behind the street legal drag racing scene in the Los Angeles area was in poor health. Word has come to us that Robinson passed away at 5AM on Saturday. He was the founder of the International Brotherhood of Street Racers, worked tirelessly at and for Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island in LA, and believed with all of his being that drag racing could be a force to unite the community, quell racial tensions, and keep kids off the streets and away from drugs and gangs. His message was heard by many and followed by many more. There are worldwide chapters of the International Brotherhood of Street Racers now and all of this is because of Robinson’s unyielding devotion to his message, his cause, and his beliefs. The 6’6″ man was as imposing physical presence, but was a truly gentle giant who was devoted to his wife Tomiko and heart broken by her passing in 2007.
Robinson served in Vietnam with the US Army and formed the International Brotherhood of Street Racers after the infamous Watts riots of 1965 in order to try and direct the collective energy of hot rodders and drag racers to positive activities rather than the drugs, violence, and anger that pervaded the greater Los Angeles area during that tumultuous time. He worked for decades to get a drag strip that could be operated with the street racer/low buck guy in mind and saw his dream come to fruition in the form of Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island near Los Angeles. The track was short on amenities, niceties, and flash, but it was a true melting pot of the car culture and a place that lots of people drag raced at with minimal hassle and off of the city streets. It can be argued that the import drag racing scene which exploded in the 1990s was born there in the decades leading up to it’s mainstream popularity.
From an appreciation by Mike Spinelli at Jalopnik:
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....
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 persona, 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.
Here's a story from a 1977 show on Channel 7, "Eyewitness Los Angeles," about drag racers and Robinson.
Here's a video feature on Robinson (YouTube.)