Banned from street racing in L.A. in the early 1970s, Big Willie Robinson became fixated on his vision of a racetrack for the Brotherhood of Street Racers. He wanted to create a place where all were welcome — even cops and criminals — but could he pull it off?
Willie reconnects with Tom Bradley
By 1971, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty had banned Big Willie and the Brotherhood from street racing, so Big Willie hit the road on a nationwide tour. There were plenty of big-money races, newspaper interviews and powwows with politicians. Then, in 1973, Big Willie got news that changed everything. He got a call from an old ally — newly-elected Mayor Tom Bradley. Gang violence was escalating, Willie said, and the mayor wanted him to bring his message of peace back to L.A. Soon, Willie and his wife, Tomiko, met with Bradley to discuss plans for a racetrack where the Brotherhood would run the show.
The land picked out for Brotherhood Raceway Park was Big Willie through and through. The site he chose was on San Pedro Bay's Terminal Island, a place long known for its mix of grit and beauty. The island houses an infamous prison that once held the likes of Charles Manson and Al Capone. And in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the island was home to hermits, writers and painters. "It was extremely picturesque," said USC professor Geraldine Knatz, an expert on Terminal Island. "It attracted a lot of artists that were California impressionists. It's got a certain romance about it."
The island's history took a dark turn in the 1940s when its vibrant Japanese community was essentially erased — its members sent to the Manzanar internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Plans for a raceway
Big Willie loved Terminal Island at first sight and began drawing up plans for a raceway, including this diagram found in one of his scrapbooks. But the city-owned property where Willie hoped to build his track was overseen by the Los Angeles Harbor Department, and his 1974 request for a permit to open a drag strip there was turned down. Mayor Tom Bradley, however, intervened with the Harbor Commission, which oversees management of the port, and a year later, racing began.
Backed by the mayor
Bradley was a major advocate of Willie and his track, even appearing there in 1977 and addressing the media in a Brotherhood jacket.
Dreams become reality
The Brotherhood of Street Racers finally had a home. A track where Willie was going to be in charge — and could fully deploy his "run whatcha brung" philosophy, welcoming all racers. He wanted to give that gift to other people, one he was denied as a boy at New Orleans' LaPlace Raceway, where he had to watch the action from the “colored” section because black people weren’t allowed to compete. As this image from his scrapbook shows, the street racer even contemplated expanding his operation onto the mainland. Soon enough, he'd have trouble just keeping the original facility open.
A sense of place and permanance
The raceway fostered a sense of place and permanence for the Brotherhood, and the group’s culture developed there. For instance: nicknames. Behind some of the nicknames are the stories of hard men and women who found peace at the track. Glenn Drivere’s nickname comes from the time he intervened when Big Willie and another man looked like they might come to blows over a race gone bad. Drivere pulled out a .410 shotgun, ready to defend Willie. But Willie begged Drivere to not get nervous, and he put his weapon down. From then on, Drivere was known as Nervous Glenn. With the Brotherhood, there was this strange alchemy of bravery, recklessness and speed that proved surprisingly successful.
One legendary race seems to best capture that anything-can-happen vibe that gave Brotherhood Raceway such a mystique. It was called Thunder Island. It was a dangerous display that featured jet cars. "A jet car is basically an engine on wheels and you just hang on," said Brotherhood member Fabian Arroyo. "The driver barely can steer. It’s propelled; it's not driven, so propelled meaning that it's forced air pushing it. So you have to literally run out of fuel to be able to stop it. You’re literally an airplane with no wings. You can go very far and crash." If that isn't enough, a jet car produces a flaming exhaust as it accelerates. And during the Thunder Island race, flames from the jet cars ignited the track’s tower, where Willie announced the races over the PA system. Still, that didn’t stop the competition. After the fire was put out, the drivers got right back to racing.
In his own words
Brotherhood Raceway was Big Willie's crowning achievement. At the track, he could bring his vision of peace through wheels to the masses — without having to worry about meddlesome cops or the dangers of racing on city streets. At every turn, Willie implored his followers to heed his words: "Our main goal at the racetrack is brotherhood." It worked. Big Willie invited gangsters to his turf, and asked them to set aside their beefs. "I want you guys to come in peace," he said. "We are not going to check nobody for guns, we are not going to check no cars. You guys are going to come in honor, man."
People who were fresh out of jail and off-duty cops — you never knew who you might see at Brotherhood Raceway. Everyone came, including some A-list friends of Willie’s, like L.A. Times Publisher Otis Chandler. Brotherhood member Harlan Brown remembers seeing him there: "He'd be up in the tower a lot of times with Willie, and they'd be announcing, or you know, a couple of times, he'd be walking around the starting line and all that." Besides supporting Willie's efforts, Chandler was a car aficionado. He collected them for his museum and raced them, too. In his first professional race, Chandler and co-driver John “J.T.” Thomas placed sixth in a six-hour endurance race in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Racing bona fides
Chandler's close friend Thomas recalls teaching the late newspaper publisher how to race cars — they practiced with Porsches — and meeting Big Willie for the first time.
Artwork commemorates the bond
Chandler later commissioned a 20-foot-long tapestry that paid tribute to Big Willie and the Brotherhood. Keith Collins’ and Richard Pietruska’s street racing scene hung in the Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, where it was displayed alongside the muscle cars depicted in the work. Later, it fetched $23,000 at auction after the former publisher's death in 2006.
Willie constantly bragged about how the Brotherhood's track lowered crime. The LAPD declined to comment. But beat cops, high-ranking LAPD officials and former L.A. city councilmembers said Brotherhood Raceway really did reduce crime. Several said crime related to street racing went down and some gang-related offenses went down, too. Much of their perspective was anecdotal — but many of them were cops who lived it, and some had led the LAPD. Among them was former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, who also served as a city councilman. He said that Willie did "a lot to get kids off the street. Any time you’re dealing with prevention, you can’t count how many lives were saved."
The track was critical to Willie’s mission, but the way he managed it had consequences. For years, Willie was only able to make short-term deals with the Harbor Commission. Meanwhile, the Harbor Department was pursuing long-term plans for the property that could one day send the Brotherhood packing. More than 1,000 pages of public records give a sense of the conflict. Both sides let the ill will calcify. Willie never played the game. He would vilify the Harbor Department to the media — complaining about "red tape" — and go above the commissioners’ heads, appealing directly to Bradley. And with the mayor on his side, Willie didn't seem to make attempts to speak their language.
A public fight
By the Brotherhood’s count, the raceway opened and closed 11 times — and each go-around was like a standalone war. It got ugly. Willie alleged there was a racist element within the Harbor Department. He told The Times in 1981 that he knew when he was being called the N-word behind closed doors.
Even if he wasn’t a politician, Willie had mastered the art of political theater. His followers weren’t above bombarding phone lines at the Harbor Department. And when things got really dicey at the port, Willie brought his protests to City Hall, supposedly with Bradley’s blessing. "Well, Mayor Bradley always told me, he'd say, 'Willie when you come down and demonstrate around City Hall, then I got to get involved,'" Willie said. Once, the Brotherhood performed a mock funeral to get its message across — even if it was insensitive and maybe a little ghoulish. Willie was like those jet cars from the Thunder Island race. He made a lot of noise. He was effective. And it was spectacular. But the thing about those jet cars is, they can’t change course. And they can’t slow down. For now, though, it was working — and that’s all that seemed to matter to Willie.
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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.
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.