We couldn’t believe it at first: The Los Angeles Times, arguably California’s most respected news organization, the winner of Pulitzer Prizes, devotes a major journalistic effort to recalling the life of a street racer. But Big Willie Robinson cut a figure in and around Los Angeles that was entirely in keeping with his enormous, six-and-a-half-foot, massively muscled frame. Robinson dropped into L.A. just in time for the Watts riots of 1965, which awakened a vision in him: Get kids off the streets, let them race each other in the hottest cars around, and you’ve all but guaranteed to keep them off the corners and away from gang warfare.
Acting on his dream, Big Willie gathered the ragtag street horde of his followers together into the newly formed International Brotherhood of Street Racers, and forever wove himself in the social fabric of Los Angeles. Now, the Times has created a podcast that’s aptly named Larger than Life about the amazing existence of Robinson, who was believed to be 70 when he died in 2012. As these Los Angeles Times photos demonstrate, Willie struck a dramatic figure as he strode among his fellow racers clad in camouflage pants long before they became fashionable, a heavy leather belt, biker-style leather cutoffs with patches and his green Army Special Forces beret.
With his wife, Tomiko, always by his side, Big Willie became something of an African American version of NHRA founder Wally Parks, getting kids to quit dangerous competition on the street and move to a safe, controlled environment. The people who knew him best comprise the voices of the Times‘ podcast, reminiscing about how he founded Brotherhood Raceway Park on a strip at Terminal Island in the midst of the sprawling Los Angeles harbor. Sadly, the strip closed in 1995. Big Willie didn’t live long after Tomiko passed away in 2010. The story begins and ends with memories of Willie and Tomiko in their matched pair of barely street-legal Dodge Charger Daytonas, both powered by heavily worked Keith Black Hemi engines. This is a rare salute to one of racing’s most unlikely folk heroes.