Big Willie and Chicago's Chris "The Golden
A few years ago I posted a Black History Month essay on the history of Black drag racing, in which I mentioned the great SoCal street racer Big Willie Robinson. A native of New Orleans, Willie served a stint in Vietnam with the U.S. Army Special Forces. Once back stateside in the late 60's he decided to make his home in that other LA, Los Angeles. Before long he acquired two items that who prove life changing -- a Dodge Daytona Charger and a beautiful wife named Tomiko. Willie, Tomiko and the Charger ruled the city's wild street racing scene in the late 1960s. They founded the Brotherhood of Street Racers, a society of gearheads of every color, where the only race that mattered was 3 am on San Gabriel Boulevard. Willie was officially the Brotherhood's president, but was more of a benign monarch -- a regal King Daytona, holding court in his bowler crown, his queen by his side. Midnight movie aficionados might remember Big Willie and the Brotherhood from the classic "Two Lane Blacktop" where Willie tears off a wicked burnout in the film's opening seconds:
After the Watts riots left the streets of South Central in flames, the LA police approached Willie for advice on how to quell unrest. His solution: a drag strip, because he reasoned that the best way to keep kids off the street is to put them on the asphalt. The city donated an abandoned strip of land on Terminal Island, and Brotherhood Raceway Park was established. From the 70's to the late 90's BRP welcomed a generation of home grow racers from every walk of life, with the credo "Run What Ya Brung." An every night, Willie was stripside to keep the peace and keep kids on the right path. Mind you, "Big" is no idle adjective for Willie Robinson, an intimidating 6' 6" man-mountain with arms like Dana truck axles. But Willie swayed far more kids with his smile than his biceps. Though BRP is currently closed, Willie is still active as president of the Brotherhood. Sadly, Tomiko passed away in 2007.
After writing that first post, I came in contact with Flickr user "bmacsac1" who has compiled a great album of vintage Big Willie images, some of which are posted below with permission. Make sure you check out the whole set.
Another find -- "Eyewitness LA" segment from 1977 featuring an interview with Big Willie.
And a poignant photo album of Willie sending Tomiko to her rest in 2007.
Hats off to a great American.