Big Willie Robinson: 1942-2012Mon, 21 May 2012
Big Willie Robinson was as much legend and myth as flesh and bone, and at six feet, six inches and weighing 300 pounds, with 21-inch biceps and a 58-inch chest, there was a lot of flesh and bone. Robinson was more than a drag racer, promoter and sanctioning-body president. He was the man who used the power of horsepower to unite people of all colors and creeds under the banner of drag racing, once saying at a race, “Ain't no colors here, it's all just engines.” As the founder and president of the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, he used racing to bring the races together.
Robinson died on May 19 after a long, undisclosed illness. He was 70 years old.
Robinson grew up in a still-very-segregated New Orleans. He wanted to play football at Louisiana State University, but in 1960, that institution was still 12 years away from fielding its first black player. LSU might have done better than its 5-4-1 record that year if it had let Robinson suit up. Other racial incidents at the time, including vandalism of his beloved hot rod, saw him leave New Orleans and head to Los Angeles. He spent two years as a Green Beret in Vietnam and proudly wore the beret long after his discharge, except when he was wearing his trademark Derby.
After the Watts Riots devastated his adopted hometown of Los Angeles in 1965, you could see that race was more than just a theoretical discussion topic for the big man. But rather than let it embitter him, he found a way to combat it--not through violence but, as other great leaders were doing around the world at the time, through peaceful means--in this case, through racing.
The year after the riots, Robinson began organizing street races. He noticed that people of all colors and ages attended. No one questions your background or color when you come up to the line to make a run. Robinson founded the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers Inc. on Nov. 20, 1966, after returning from a two-year tour in Vietnam as a Green Beret.
The Brotherhood first raced on the streets, blocking off various thoroughfares in East Los Angeles and in what was then called South Central, or Watts. Police noticed that the crime rate went down when there was a race, Robinson said. In 1968, with assistance from Capt. Frank Beeson and other leadership in the Los Angeles Police Department, the Brotherhood blocked off a mile of downtown street for all-night dragging. The first night there were 10,000 people on hand, Robinson recalled. The second night the number doubled. Racers and fans crossed all color lines.
“Black, white, yellow, brown, skinheads, Nazi party members, Muslims--we got 'em all,” Robinson once said.
While there were other legally sanctioned drag strips in Southern California at the time, there were more restrictions, it cost more to run there and their last runs were over by 10 p.m.
“Who wants to go home at 10 p.m.?” Robinson asked.
After much lobbying of the L.A. City Council and with the help of the Harbor Commission and another tall, imposing black man--then-L.A. mayor Tom Bradley--Robinson founded Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island in 1974. The track used k-rail from the Long Beach Grand Prix and land from the Harbor Department. For $10 anyone who passed a rudimentary tech inspection could run (even your author raced there BITD, FWIW). The track was open weekends for 21 years, the ultimate expression of fuel-injected democracy. Some credit it as the birthplace of the import racing scene, and it certainly did play a part in that movement.
But all good things must come to an end, and the track eventually was replaced by a coal dock and shipping-container storage, a victim of global trade. Robinson made attempts to bring it back over the years, but the income from shipping far outweighed the benefits of racially integrated racing, at least to the Harbor Commission, and the track never returned.
By Mark Vaughn