Episode 2

Becoming Big Willie

Willie and Tomiko Robinson
© Howard Koby

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The five-year period after the Watts riots of 1965 was the most crucial stretch of Big Willie Robinson’s entire life. This was when he met the love of his life, got the car of his dreams, forged ties with the Los Angeles Police Department and started the Brotherhood of Street Racers — transforming him into the man known as Big Willie.

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The Watts riots

In the summer of 1965, the Watts riots exploded across predominantly black South L.A. Residents were already livid about a lack of jobs and being segregated to live mostly on the city’s south side. But most of all, black people were tired of relentless police brutality. So on Aug. 11, after a traffic stop involving a young black man named Marquette Frye, they rose up to fight the police. Over six days, nearly 3,500 people were arrested, more than 1,000 were injured and 34 people died. Twenty five of the deceased were black. Law enforcement authorities put up a sign at the edge of the riot zone that read: “Turn Left or Get Shot.” The riots exposed the depths of L.A.’s troubles, but they also created an opening for Willie, who came home from his military service in 1966. The rubble was still on the ground in South L.A., and his message of peace through wheels would resonate in a city desperate for change.

Front page of the Los Angeles Times covering the Watts Riots
The front page of the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 14, 1965, chronicles the Watts riots.

Racing for peace

Now the late nights Willie spent racing across the streets of L.A. had a new purpose. Willie told Brotherhood member Fabian Arroyo in 2009 that his efforts were bringing "together white, black, brown and yellow people. Racing." Before long, police started showing up incognito to Willie’s races. "It was his idea really to try to use street racing and give an outlet for the kids as opposed to gangs and all of that," said Stephen Downing, who joined the LAPD in 1960 and eventually became a deputy chief of police.

Making The Times

The media was paying attention. In the Nov. 20, 1966, edition of the Los Angeles Times’ West Magazine, there was a lengthy story titled “Street racing: A squall every night.” It featured Willie, helping to create an indelible character. The piece dubbed him Big Willie — and introduced the racer to the powers that be in L.A.

Newspaper page about street racing

The story described Willie as a “promoter of street races in [the] area of 43rd and Vermont.” According to automotive journalist Geoff Stunkard, Otis Chandler, the car collecting publisher of The Times, had pushed for the article. Stunkard said: "The surprising thing that came out of that story was the fact that all these people were coming from all over Los Angeles and there was no fights and there was nothing else going on."

Willie in the L.A. Times

The cops make contact, the Brotherhood is founded

Soon enough, the LAPD reached out to Willie — and he headed to City Hall for a meeting. That’s when he met City Councilman Tom Bradley, a former cop and rising black politician who would soon become deeply connected to the Brotherhood. "So they said, 'Willie, what we will do, we'll get some firemen and police officers to work with you.' And right away, it clicked," Willie later recounted. They hatched a plan and Willie formally organized the Brotherhood in 1968. Former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that Willie's ties to the department were "in the lore of community action in South Los Angeles." And he said Willie and the group fulfilled "a tremendous need at the time. It’s something I think was a pretty natural fit for the LAPD."

Brotherhood of Street Racers membership card

In his own words

Big Willie discussed the relationship he formed with the LAPD in the 1960s during his interview with Arroyo in 2009.

Meeting Tomiko

Big Willie couldn't have taken on his mission by himself. And in Tomiko Smith, he found the ideal partner. She was the daughter of a Japanese woman and an African American serviceman stationed overseas. In 1953, when Tomiko was 4, her family immigrated to the U.S. from Japan. Eventually, she moved to L.A. and got a job at a nightclub in South L.A. called Maverick's Flat. It was a scene — The Temptations played on opening night — and Willie worked there as a bouncer. Soon after meeting Tomiko, Willie took her on a date to a drag strip. By the end of the 1960s, they were married.

Tomiko Robinson

Tomiko had been a shy young woman when Willie first met her, according to her cousin, Karen Daniels. But she quickly blossomed. Daniels said they soon had all the same interests — including lifting weights and racing cars. "She was one of the fastest Californian female drivers," Daniels said.

Tomiko and Willie at a race

Scrapbook memories

Big Willie documented his wild life in oversized scrapbooks, which he filled with newspaper stories, magazine articles and photographs. He gave them to friend Ted Moser, who has preserved the books in the years since Big Willie's death in 2012. And Tomiko, who died five years before Big Willie, is a fixture in them. Several Brotherhood members told me that their group wouldn’t have achieved what it did without her. Tomiko was always there, behind the scenes, working to ensure that things went smoothly. "She was a big part of it," Arroyo said. "She held it together."

Page from Willie's scrapbook

Big Willie and Tomiko were street racers first and foremost, so their high-powered rides fill many of the pages, some of which include colorful photo collages that display Willie's homespun artistry.

Page from Willie's scrapbook

Cars had always been status symbols for Willie, dating back to his childhood in New Orleans. His dad had given him a car — a 1953 Oldsmobile 98. It was a handsome ride drenched in chrome and powered by a big V-8. And at that time in New Orleans, having a car as a young black man — even a used one — was a big deal. But that car had been vandalized by white people angry over integration at Willie's university, Louisiana State University in New Orleans. As he made a name for himself in L.A., Willie became a devotee of a particularly ferocious muscle car: the Dodge Charger Daytona.

Page from Willie's scrapbook

The King Daytona

By 1969, Willie was enough of a star in the street racing world that a local auto dealership decided to give him a car. That year, Dodge put out an extreme version of its Charger muscle car. It was perfect for Willie. Only about 500 of the first-generation Dodge Charger Daytonas were ever built, making them extremely rare. And on top of that, the Daytona that Willie got was one of just dozens outfitted with a high-powered Hemi motor. True to form, Willie wasn’t content with a stock Daytona: He customized his to make it even faster. He had it souped up at Keith Black Racing Engines, which built motors for the top drag racers. And Big Willie gave the ride a name: the King Daytona.

King Daytona

The Queen Daytona

Tomiko got a matching car and gave it a matching name. These days, the King and Queen cars would be worth a ton of money, maybe half a million dollars apiece, according to one estimate. But for Willie, what was most important was the mission. And being given the King Daytona — this was a sign of his mission’s momentum.

Scrapbook page of the Queen Daytona

They live on as collectibles

Decades after their heyday, Willie's and Tomiko’s famed Dodge Charger Daytonas were turned into collectible die-cast cars. Made by Supercar Collectibles, the models of the King and Queen cars debuted in 2011 and quickly sold out. A limited gold-plated edition sold for $1,000. These days, even the regular ones fetch upwards of $500 on EBay. Scott Dahlberg, president of Supercar Collectibles, said they were meant to honor the first couple of street racing. "It brings back all those memories," he said. "They were a team — they were a duo."

The King Daytona (Max Lu and Genesia Ting / Los Angeles Times)
The Queen Daytona (Max Lu and Genesia Ting / Los Angeles Times)

A setback

By the late 1960s, Big Willie and the Brotherhood were attracting huge crowds to their street races. And Willie said he complained about it to Mayor Sam Yorty, seeking to open an official racetrack. But Yorty wasn’t interested. Rebuffed, Willie turned to an ally — the mayor’s challenger in the 1969 election: Councilman Tom Bradley. Bradley agreed to help him open a raceway. It was a quid pro quo: the Brotherhood provided security for Bradley during the campaign. But Yorty defeated Bradley, stoking racial fears during the election. He pushed the idea that if Bradley won, L.A. would be taken over by those he called “black power left-wing radicals.” There were immediate consequences for Big Willie beyond losing the chance at getting a racetrack: Yorty cracked down on street racing in L.A.

Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley
Sam Yorty, left, was reelected as mayor of L.A. in 1969, defeating Tom Bradley. (Bill Varie / Los Angeles Times)

The auction block

At least Big Willie still had the King Daytona — for now. Eventually, it was destroyed, and the Queen Daytona was wrecked, too. However, Willie later acquired another Daytona — a somewhat tamer ride known as the Duke and Duchess Daytona, and that car is still around. It was auctioned in 2018 by the Mecum Auction Co. at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. The seller, car collector Steve Ashley, said he was letting it go because he simply needed to cull his holdings.

The Duke and Duchess Daytona had actually changed hands several times before winding up on the auction block last year. A previous owner, Gary French, bought it from Willie in 2000, but sold it later, much to his regret. He got emotional just talking about it. "The car, to me, was my crown jewel. I just thought I’d never have anything better and I still don’t think I’ll have anything better," he said tearfully.

Detail of car
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Ahead of the auction of the Duke and Duchess Daytona, muscle car aficionados who made the trip to the Mecum event checked out the gleaming coupe. Middle-aged Midwesterners clutching hot dogs and auction catalogs said they had first heard of Big Willie decades ago as car-obsessed teens.

Detail of car
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Bob Gadd of Fairfield, Ohio, said that he learned of Willie through car magazines. "Here's this guy — man, he's freakin' huge — and racing stuff like this. And he's winning! So you saw articles on him, and stories. This guy was famous because he won so many races."

When it was all said and done, the Daytona was auctioned for $203,500, including the buyer's premium. Ashley, the seller, was already second-guessing his decision, moments after the auction ended. "It’s kind of a bittersweet deal," he said. "I will probably have regrets — I don’t usually have regrets, but that’s a different car."

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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. Additional production by Jessica Perez.

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.