Newsletter: Essential California: The larger-than-life legend of L.A. street racer Big Willie Robinson

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Big Willie Robinson lobbied hard, including with demonstrations outside City Hall, for a safe place for L.A. racers to meet.
(Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, July 10, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

Enterprise business reporter Daniel Miller was still covering the entertainment industry back in 2017 when he received the assignment that would lead him to Big Willie Robinson — and down a yearlong rabbit hole — deep into Los Angeles history, street racing and the unfurling story of an extraordinary man who sought to end the violence in a city torn apart by the 1965 Watts Riots.

But first, back to spring 2017. The union that represents Hollywood writers was on the verge of a strike that year, and Daniel was sent to write a story about how that strike might affect the local businesses that cater to film and TV productions. The strike was eventually averted, but Daniel talked to florists, caterers, transportation firms and the like.

He was out on a dusty car lot in the deep Valley, interviewing a man whose company outfits vehicles for film and TV, when Ted Moser, the company’s proprietor, stopped in front of a broken-down race car. By then, Daniel had told Moser about his family history (the reporter hails from three generations of L.A. car dealers) and his deep interest in cars.

“I’m paraphrasing,” Daniel recalled, but standing in front of the faded race car, Moser said something like, “You know, if you’re a car guy you should know whose car this was.”

“I gave him a blank look,” Daniel said. “It was evident to him that I had no idea whose car it was.” The car, as you have likely figured out by now, had belonged to the legendary Big Willie Robinson.

“He started telling me the story about Big Willie,” Daniel recalled. “He dropped a lot of boldface names. He mentioned Tom Bradley. He mentioned Otis Chandler, the former publisher of the L.A. Times. He mentioned some of Big Willie’s Hollywood ties and I honestly couldn’t believe it was real.”

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With the support of then-L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, Big Willie Robinson saw his dream of opening Brotherhood Raceway Park on Terminal Island become reality. At center is Big Willie’s wife, Tomiko, herself a street racer.
(Howard Koby)

But when Daniel returned to the office and began to research Big Willie, it became clear that much of what Moser had said was verifiable. “I just knew that there was a great story there,” he said. Daniel set Robinson’s story aside for a while, and then returned to it at full force last year, beginning work on what would become the seven-part documentary podcast “Larger Than Life.”

I sat down with Daniel to talk about the podcast, who Big Willie Robinson was and what kind of a role he played in the city.

Who was Big Willie Robinson?

Big Willie Robinson was the founder and leader of the Brotherhood of Street Racers. It’s a group that preaches peace through wheels. The idea is that you can bring people together around cars, and in particular, street racing. And that people’s differences — whether it’s race, class or culture — melt away when they’re working on cars and racing them.

When was this?

Big Willie started pushing this idea in the 1960s in the wake of the Watts riots. He got a surprising amount of support from the powers that be in Los Angeles. Cops, politicians — all sorts of people — saw his vision and got behind him. They gave him the backing he needed. And it worked.

As part of the story, I talked to people in law enforcement who said that certain types of crime did go down when Big Willie got involved, particularly crime related to street racing. We should note that street racing is obviously illegal. But Big Willie pushed a safer, more organized way to do it. He eventually opened a racetrack where people could get off the streets and drag race. Willie and his group pushed a message of positivity at a time when L.A. really needed it.

[Read “Man and myth: Uncovering the legend of Big Willie Robinson” by Daniel Miller]

Can you set the scene for us? What was 1960s L.A. like when Big Willie emerged as a civic figure?

Big Willie really got his start after the Watts riots of 1965. In 1966, Willie began to organize as a street racer.

I think it’s important to point out that even though these days the world can feel like a dark and divided place, in the wake of the Watts riots, L.A. was deeply damaged and even more troubled. The riots exposed the depths of L.A.’s problems when it came to race. You had a city that was largely segregated, with African Americans mostly living in South Los Angeles. The LAPD was considered by many to be a brutal and racist force, and for some that had been exposed by the riots. I think you had city leaders who were looking inward to try to see how they could improve things, while also examining the mistakes that were made that led to the riots.

What kind of role did Big Willie play in the aftermath of the riots?

Thirty-four people died during the Watts riots. Twenty-five were black. Nearly 3,500 people were arrested and more than 1,000 were injured. It was a catastrophe. But, it gave Willie an opportunity. I think that the authorities were desperate for a reset button, and Willie could be a bridge between law enforcement and the communities that they were policing. Maybe at another time, they wouldn’t have given Willie a chance, but he seized the moment and got help from the LAPD and others. With help from the police, Willie was able to better organize street races — making them safer. Later, his racetrack on Terminal Island took things to another level.

Why haven’t more people heard of Big Willie?

Well, I will say that he got plenty of media coverage back in the day. It’s just that it was a long time ago now. It was fun to comb through our own archives and see that we covered Willie pretty regularly in the 1960s, ’70s, and even into the ’80s. Some might say that he got so much coverage because of his friendship with Otis Chandler — that’s a relationship we explore in our podcast. National car magazines also wrote about Willie, and he appeared on local TV news, too. But to your point — he did fade into obscurity as time wore on. And I wanted to find out why.

[Listen to “Larger Than Life,” Daniel Miller’s documentary podcast about Big Willie Robinson]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

TOP STORIES

Aftershocks from the recent earthquakes near Ridgecrest, Calif., are decreasing in both frequency and magnitude, and seismologists say they expect the pattern to continue. Los Angeles Times

A Los Angeles jury upheld allegations of workplace harassment and retaliation against Beverly Hills Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli, marking the latest defeat in a string of lawsuits lobbed at the chief from inside her own agency. The city will have to pay $1.1 million to the defendants. Spagnoli became the city’s first female police chief in 2016, and her tenure has been marked by repeated allegations that she made derogatory comments about the religions, sexual orientation and ethnicity of subordinates. Los Angeles Times

The final San Francisco homelessness numbers show that the city’s homeless population has risen 30% since 2017. San Francisco Chronicle

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L.A. STORIES

Rip Torn has died at 88. The prolific actor was known for playing a caustic talk-show producer on “The Larry Sanders Show,” and for his role in the “Men in Black” franchise, among many other parts. Los Angeles Times

Legendary L.A. chef Nancy Silverton (of Mozza and La Brea Bakery fame) is opening her first new restaurant in six years this fall in Culver City. Los Angeles Times

Almost a third of the homeless population in L.A. County lives in their cars. Some Westside residents experiencing homelessness have found shelter in vans rented from the same Venice “vanlord,” who owns about 14 vans in the area: “Local homelessness experts said a vehicle rental business like [Gary] Gallerie’s is unprecedented, but not surprising in a region where a renter has to make triple the minimum wage to afford the median monthly rent of about $2,500.” Santa Monica Daily Press

You may survive the Big One, but L.A.’s water supply might not fare as well. The L.A. Department of Water and Power predicts it would take six months to get water back into every location after a major earthquake. KCRW

A retired teacher found some seahorses off Long Beach. Then he built a secret world for them. Los Angeles Times

Stop dissing L.A.’s art: An open letter to LACMA architect Peter Zumthor from our own art critic. Los Angeles Times

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

The wait list for migrants in Tijuana to request asylum in the United States has grown to the longest it has ever been. San Diego Union-Tribune

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Twenty-three U.S governors signed a pledge backing California leaders in their showdown with the Trump administration over its plans to relax vehicle mileage standards. Associated Press

The largest affordable housing bond in San Francisco history is headed to the November ballot for local voters. The bond will need a two-thirds majority to pass. San Francisco Chronicle

The senior pastor of one of Modesto’s biggest churches has announced plans to run for mayor, challenging the incumbent in the November 2020 election. Modesto Bee

California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara will return the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he accepted from insurance industry executives. During his campaign, Lara had pledged that he would not solicit or accept campaign donations from people he would regulate as insurance commissioner. San Diego Union-Tribune

CRIME AND COURTS

The wife of the San Luis Obispo County clerk has admitted to embezzling more than $32,000 from a local high school band’s booster club. San Luis Obispo Tribune

A psychiatrist who admitted altering clinical notes in the infamous Menendez brothers’ 1990s murder trial has agreed to surrender his medical license over new allegations of wrongdoing, according to the Medical Board of California. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

A Salton Sea man has died from West Nile virus. He was the first person to die of West Nile virus in California this year. The Desert Sun

Sequoia National Park officials will set fire to portions of the Giant Forest this week in a prescribed burn intended to prevent more devastating future fires. Park visitors should expect delays and smoke. Visalia Times Delta

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

An anti-tourist banner was unfurled on Big Sur’s famed Bixby Bridge over the weekend. The giant, Instagram photo-ruining sign has been removed by authorities, but the rage presumably remains. (Read our previous newsletter coverage on overtourism in Big Sur). SFGate

Remember Naugles Tacos? Never heard of it? The cult Mexican fast-food chain is expanding in Orange County. Los Angeles Times

Antioch’s only megaplex movie theater has closed, forcing local moviegoers in the city to venture out of town if they want to see a first-run movie. East Bay Times

A local soccer shop in Redding made thousands of dollars and sold out of Megan Rapinoe merchandise during the World Cup. KRCR News

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: sunny, 80. San Diego: partly sunny, 74. San Francisco: partly sunny, 67. San Jose: partly sunny, 78. Sacramento: partly sunny, 90. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

To claim California as home is to claim both immensity and looseness.
Fresno poet Jean Janzen

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.