Episode 1

King of the Street

Big Willie Robinson
© Howard Koby

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Big Willie Robinson was an L.A. underground legend who used street racing to heal a city torn apart by racial violence. Along the way, his exploits touched Hollywood, the Southland’s most notorious gangs — even the Los Angeles Times. It was his childhood in segregated New Orleans and a stint in the military that set him on a path to become larger than life.

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Willie at Otis Chandler's funeral
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Meet Big Willie

Every myth has some truth to it. We tell that to ourselves. Maybe it helps us believe. Because we want to — even when we may know better. This is the story of a man whose life at times seemed like a myth. At least, the way some people told it. And this story begins with the memorial service of a mogul.

The memorial

Big Willie transcended norms his entire life — he was a black man who bridged gulfs of race, class and culture — in pursuit of his mission. And that was on display when Willie interrupted the 2006 memorial service of former Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler to deliver an unscripted eulogy for his onetime benefactor.

Full throttle

Big Willie believed in the magic of fast cars — like his 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona, which he dubbed the King Daytona. He liked to say he used wheels to unite people of all backgrounds, some of whom might otherwise be enemies.

Willie and his car

The street racing scene

Big Willie was a major influence on the vibrant subculture of street racers in Los Angeles — it's a scene that has continued to grow since his death in 2012. Every night, somewhere in the city, racers in souped-up rides square off a quarter-mile at a time. That is, until the cops break up the action. It’s electric, exhilarating and very dangerous. It’s also illegal.

Willie at a protest
(Fitzgerald Whitney / Los Angeles Times)

A street statesman

Willie once said he used "racing to stop killings." Whether it was brokering peace between rival gangs or staging a protest in front of Los Angeles City Hall, Willie was willing to speak out in support of his cause.

Showbiz speed

This is L.A. — so Big Willie did some acting, befriended movie stars and got them to help with his mission. He even had a connection to "Star Wars." Willie boasted ties to a producer of the space opera and claimed he'd been offered the role of Darth Vader in the original film.

Darth Vader and Willie

The Brotherhood

Big Willie's activism led him to start the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers in the 1960s. It's a band of gearheads guided by Willie’s vision of peace, fellowship and speed — and the organization lives on today. The members, who wear vests or jackets dotted with the group's patches, meet monthly at a clubhouse on South Central Avenue in South L.A.

Stacey Lynn White
Stacey Lynn White (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Donald Galaz
Donald Galaz (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Harlan Brown
Harlan Brown (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Kennith Russell
Kennith Russell (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Fabian Arroyo
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Meet Fabian Arroyo

Brotherhood member Fabian Arroyo was a teen street racer in the late 1970s when he met Big Willie. He got to know the leader of the Brotherhood really well — they were even housemates for a time. Arroyo recorded an interview with him in 2009 and shared it with The Times. In it, Willie tells the story of his life.

Before he was Big Willie

Willie Andrew Robinson III was born in 1942 and grew up in a big New Orleans family, five kids in all, raised by Lula Mae and Willie Robinson Jr. The oldest of the bunch, Willie came of age in segregated Louisiana. His mother was the loving protector and his auto body repairman father was a stern taskmaster. Willie was fortunate — he attended one of the best public schools catering to the city’s African American community: Walter L. Cohen High School. In the 1960 Cohen yearbook — the one from his senior year — Willie said becoming a doctor was his life’s ambition.

Family photos of a young Willie
Left: Willie is shown with younger brother Don Ray Robinson. Right: Willie flexes alongside sister Gwendolyn Robinson. (Courtesy of Jean Davis-Hatcher)

Heading West

But racial strife was festering in Willie's hometown. He enrolled at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, and before long, his car was vandalized in an attack by white people angry over the school's recent integration, according to an interview he gave on the TV show "Car Crazy." His family feared for his safety and sent Willie to L.A. in 1960. Soon, he hooked up with some local racers. Willie explained how it came to pass: "I started working at the body shop and ... two Jewish street racers that lived next door to the body shop, they said, 'Willie, how would you like to go to the street races?'"

Vietnam

So Willie was working at the body shop, working on his car and working on his abilities behind the wheel. But at the same time, the Vietnam War was escalating. And as Willie recounted on "Car Crazy," in 1964 the military said to him, “Hey, Uncle Sam needs you now.”

Family photo of Willie wearing fatigues
Big Willie, left, poses for a shot with with sister Jean Davis-Hatcher and brother Don Ray Robinson at Willie's home. (Courtesy of Jean Davis-Hatcher)

In his own words

Willie said in his 2009 interview with Arroyo that he carried out covert missions in Vietnam as a Green Beret, but came home in 1966 after getting wounded.

Larger than life

After his military service, Willie returned to L.A. in anguish, wondering why he’d been spared. He wrestled with even bigger questions, too: Who would Willie Andrew Robinson III become next? And what was his real purpose? The answers would transform him into the man known as Big Willie — the king of the street.

Next episode

Becoming Big Willie »

Website credits

Reported by Daniel Miller. Digital production by Sean Greene. Edited by Kimi Yoshino. Video production by Myung Chun, Robert Meeks, Jason Neubert and J.R. Lizarraga. Copy edited by Rubaina Azhar. Photography by Myung Chun, Kirk McKoy, Howard Koby and Steve Reyes. Photos edited by Mary Cooney. Research by Scott Wilson. Audience engagement by Tessa Bangs.

Podcast credits

Reported, written and hosted by Daniel Miller. Produced by Grant Irving. Edited by Catherine Saint Louis. Story supervision by Kimi Yoshino. Executive produced by Jonathan Hirsch. Additional production by Karan Nevatia. Sound design and mixing by Daniel Tureck. Music by Nolan Schneider and Grant Irving. Sound engineering by Mike Heflin. Research by Scott Wilson. Fact checking by Laura Bullard. Copy edited by Rubaina Azhar. Additional audio work by Myung Chun, Jason Neubert and Robert Meeks. Audio rights and clearance by Alan Hagman, Paige Hymson and Erica Varela. Legal work by Jeffrey Glasser. "Larger Than Life" is a production of LA Times Studios with support from Neon Hum Media.