Big Willie Robinson, the man who spent most of his life fighting for street racers to have a safe place to compete, was born to Lula Mae and Willie Robinson Jr. in New Orleans on Sept. 12, 1942.
He was the oldest of the couple’s five children.
He wouldn’t adopt the “Big Willie” nickname until after leaving New Orleans, but, at 6 feet, 6 inches, and 300 pounds, he already had grown into the moniker as a young man. He attempted to pursue a football career at Louisiana State University, but the school turned him down. (Robinson was Black and LSU wouldn’t integrate its football team until 1972.)
He developed his love of cars from a young age, working alongside his father, who was a body shop repairman. After his prized Oldsmobile 98 was destroyed in an apparently racially motivated attack, the family sent him to live on his own in Los Angeles in 1960.
With hostilities escalating in Vietnam, Robinson enlisted in the U.S. Army, but physical problems with his legs and back caused him to be honorably discharged before completing basic training in 1966.
Robinson would later claim to have fought in Vietnam and usually wore fatigues and a military beret in public. After Robinson’s death, Los Angeles Times reporter Daniel Miller discovered, in 2019, that Robinson had embellished the facts concerning his military service.
But ultimately, that didn’t affect the value of Robinson’s social contributions, which would begin after the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles crystallized the social and racial inequities in the polarized city.
City officials previously indifferent to the problems of poverty and racial inequity in South Los Angeles suddenly began listening to voices coming from the affected community. Among those who caught their ear was Big Willie Robinson.
As a car buff, Robinson had experienced the dangers of illegal street racing and had been advocating for an organized solution that would allow drag racing in a safer and more controlled environment. In 1968, he formed the International Brotherhood of Street Racers to help in his lobbying for the cause.
He began working with the Los Angeles Police Department to stage such races, with the first such taking place in 1968. He convinced skeptics with his belief in the use of organized street racing to help heal fractured social relationships.
“When it comes to wheels — White, Black, brown and yellow; male and female; young and old; rich or poor; from gangbangers to law enforcement,” he told the L.A. Times, “with that formula, you can pull your communities together.”
The street racing events attracted large crowds, but Robinson became more and more convinced that a permanent site was needed in order to hold the weekly racing events. After former LAPD Chief Tom Bradley became mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, Robinson approached him with his plans.
They involved leasing land on Terminal Island just southeast of the Vincent Thomas Bridge for a raceway. The former Reeves Field had been a U.S. naval air training site from 1927 until it was decommissioned in 1947. The Navy still used it occasionally, as did the LAPD, which held driver training for its officers there.
It didn’t take long for auto racers to see the promise of those paved runways. A Long Beach car club held the first official race there in 1953. It lost money, and was not repeated, but the idea of using the former base survived — and Big Willie Robinson adopted it.
Big Willie had mastered the art of speaking in rough-hewn eloquence to those in power, which, in this case was the Los Angeles City Council and Port of LA officials. He described the unifying power of street racing to bring disparate groups together, while also easing the rising tide of deadly traffic collisions tied to illegal racing on city streets.
The closure of dragstrips throughout the L.A. area, including the nearby Lions Drag Strip in Wilmington in 1972, exacerbated the problem. Robinson eventually persuaded the city and the port to let him open Brotherhood Raceway Park at Terminal Island in 1974. It would operate off and on there for the next 21 years.
The makeshift facility conducted races from 1974 to 1984, when the port closed it down to use the space to store imported automobiles. Robinson explored other options, including building a raceway at Los Angeles International Airport and at the Palmdale Airport. But none of the other options panned out.
In 1993, Robinson finally got the port to allow him to reopen at Reeves Field. He began holding weekly events that attracted 3,000 to 4,000 spectators regularly. But the port’s permission was temporary — the track had to close in 1995 to make way for the LAXT Coal Terminal facility.
The coal terminal opened in 1997 and closed in 2006. It was abandoned and the land cleared a couple of years later. Throughout it all, though, Robinson continued appealing to anyone who would listen to allow the Brotherhood Raceway Park on Terminal Island to reopen. But port officials and the LA harbor commission remained unyielding.
Big Willie Robinson died from an infection that led to heart failure on May 29, 2012. His wife and longtime racing companion, Tamiko, had died in 2007.
Repeated attempts since then to implement his ideas about establishing a permanent home for street racers have yet to become reality, but his persistence, larger-than-life personality and idealistic ambitions have not been forgotten.
Sources: “Big Willie Robinson: 1942-2012: He Brought The Races Together Through Racing,” by Mark Vaughn, Autoweek website, May 20, 2012. Daily Breeze archives. Los Angeles Times archives. “Street Legends: Big Willie Robinson and the Brotherhood of Street Racers International,” by jonjon005, The Symple Speed Garage blog, Oct. 5, 2015. Wikipedia.