Big Willie Robinson’s decision to make himself into a myth ended in tragedy. An effort to understand his legacy led to a harrowing street race in South L.A., and, ultimately, a question: What does it really mean to be larger than life?
A tangle of metal and rubber
Big Willie died seven years ago, and the street racing scene in L.A. has moved on without him. But his legacy is alive — if you know where to look. Like on a dusty piece of land in the San Fernando Valley. The property, which runs up against the train tracks that bisect Northridge, is home to Picture Car Warehouse, a company that outfits vehicles for Hollywood productions. Its owner, Ted Moser, was a friend of Willie's — they were close enough that the street racer gave him a prized possession: his old race car. Moser explained how Willie throttled the car to glory in races across the country in the 1970s.
These days, the car is a mess. The roof is missing and the footwells are filled with cobwebs. The Plymouth looks like a cop car — Willie actually called it the Police Daytona. Its paint is fading, but you can read the lettering on the door: “Street Racers Inc., National & International Brotherhood.”
How did the Police Daytona wind up wasting away? Big Willie's hard times began in the mid-2000s. By this time, Brotherhood Raceway Park had been closed for a decade. It was now a "ghost track" — exactly what Big Willie had once said he worried it would become. Car culture was changing. The priorities of police and politicians were shifting, too. But, of course, Willie continued to pursue the same old plan of reopening the track. He was now in his 60s — a kind of elder statesman. And with Tomiko by his side, he'd keep fighting, just as he always had. But they now had money trouble. And Tomiko had stopped taking her blood pressure medicine, her cousin Karen Daniels said. Soon, Tomiko had a stroke — and it was followed by another, more devastating one.
A broken heart
Tomiko died on April 29, 2007. At 57, her heart suddenly stopped beating. Brotherhood member Fabian Arroyo remembers when he got the news. "She died in his arms," Arroyo said. "I was out of town and he called me — he had her in his arms." Nothing could compare to Willie’s devastation. He and Tomiko had been married nearly four decades. At her funeral, the program was filled with commendations from L.A. city councilmembers, the Los Angeles Police Department and a U.S congressman. They achieved so much together — and Willie paid tribute to the strength of their bond in his scrapbook.
In his own words
Willie, hearbroken over the death of Tomiko, explained that without her by his side, the fight had gone out of him.
Hit the road
By 2009, Willie's efforts to reopen the track had sputtered and he had filed for bankruptcy three times in three years. He was also losing his home in Inglewood to foreclosure. So with little left for him in the area, he made plans to pull up stakes. Arroyo helped publicize a garage sale to unload everything, including Willie's workout equipment and movie collection. "Willie was on a mission to get out of town, because he didn’t want to be in that house anymore," Arroyo said. "He just wanted to be gone."
Willie told Brotherhood members that he was heading out on another cross-country tour in his motor home — just like the good old days. "He talked about it like it was 1972 all over again, without Tomiko," Arroyo said. In 2010, Big Willie made it to his hometown, New Orleans. But he didn't stay long. Moser rang him with an opportunity: Come back to L.A., he said, to work on a film about being the king of the street racers. Moser said that he wired Willie money so he could make the trip. But then, an accident happened. "He was loading his motor home and he dropped a metal tool box on his foot," Moser said. Willie suffered a "big, gaping wound," but didn't seek proper medical treatment, Moser said. Had Tomiko been around, she would have driven Willie straight to the ER. But she wasn’t, and Willie was proud and penniless. He thought he could get by — because he always had. So rather than go to the hospital, Moser said Willie poured bleach on his wound, wrapped it in duct tape and headed west.
The accident sent Willie on a slow, painful slide toward death. Once back in L.A., Willie resisted medical treatment, but eventually relented. It was too late — an infection had set in. Starting with his toes, Willie underwent several amputations, which were both physically and mentally debilitating, Arroyo said. "He said, 'Look what they've done to me. I used to be 6-foot something and now I'm barely 4 feet tall,'" Arroyo recalled. "He said, 'These butchers have just cut me up like nothing.'" Eventually, Willie stopped eating. The doctors said that Willie had to eat or he’d die. So Arroyo and Brotherhood member Donald Galaz brought him his favorite meal from Carl’s Jr. — a huge spread that cost $17. "When I gave it to him, he took two bites and he was done. And that's when I knew he was going to die," Arroyo said. "Because he never took two bites — he would finish that burger, you know. And I just looked down and I went, 'Oh my God.' Me and [Galaz], me and him, walking out of there, both of us with tears on our hands. Two grown men crying."
Willie Andrew Robinson III died on May 19, 2012. He was 69. Heart failure brought on by his infection killed him. Arroyo offered a different reason: "He died of a broken heart. It just took a long time for him to die."
The Brotherhood forges ahead
Even though Big Willie is gone, the Brotherhood of Street Racers lives on. Members meet each month at a clubhouse on South Central Avenue, where they tuck into BBQ and swap stories about Big Willie. Some still dream of reviving Brotherhood Raceway, which has now been closed for 24 years — more than twice as long as it was ever open. "We're not gonna give up," said Galaz. "Big Willie would never want us to stop. It's going to end with me when my casket goes in the ground too, and I'm going to continue to fight the good fight."
The Brotherhood is not what it once was. Willie regularly claimed the group had tens of thousands of members, but a recent estimate pegged it in the hundreds. Still, no matter what happens, members said they'll continue to pursue Willie's vision of peace through wheels.
Searching for hope
More than a half-century has passed over the course of this story. Big Willie’s L.A. doesn’t really exist anymore. These days, the Brotherhood and cops don't have much of a relationship. The spirit of cooperation is largely gone and Brotherhood members said that police have taken an increasingly hard line on street racing. Part of the reason Big Willie was able to get politicians and police on his side was timing. After the 1965 uprising in Watts and the L.A. riots three decades later, they listened. And to his credit, Willie made the most of those opportunities. Big Willie was a rare bridge between the streets and law enforcement in Los Angeles. Brenda Stevenson, professor of African American history at UCLA, said she wasn’t aware of any figure today, who at a citywide level, is trying to close the chasm between the LAPD and whole swaths of L.A. that don’t trust the police. "It does take a very unusual person to be able to convince each side that indeed you're on their side too, and that you can help them work together with people that they feel like they're their enemies," she said.
In his footsteps
Over the years, just a handful of other public figures have pursued similar visions of peace in South Los Angeles. One was the late Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was killed in March. Nipsey grew up in the area and was a member of the Rollin' 60s Crips at one point. But rather than leave his neighborhood once he got famous, Nipsey became an activist and organizer. He invested in the community — opening an educational center and a clothing store that employed felons. And yet he was gunned down in front of that store — allegedly killed by a member of the gang he once ran with. It’s easy to be cynical about this — to see so few figures following Willie’s path in L.A. and then to have one die so senselessly. But one thing Willie’s story can actually teach us is to be less cynical. Different people can find common ground. It was Willie’s dogged determination — which could veer into stubbornness — that made that possible.
These days, it can feel like we live in a period of open-season hatred, and Willie’s message of peace may seem Pollyanna-ish to some. But keep in mind, even in his day, Big Willie went against the grain. After the Watts riots, when L.A. was torn apart, he saw a different way. And he did it at a time when black men were disrespected — and oppressed. Consider what his friend Lloyd Gavin said — in the New Orleans of their youth, a young black man could become a pimp, a preacher, a cab driver or a longshoreman. But Willie dared to dream big, even when the boot was on his neck. And Stevenson, the UCLA professor, said that could still inspire others to take up the mantle. "Willie is a really interesting and important example for people not just in L.A., but people across the nation," she said. "[He's] an excellent example of someone who was able to use their unique characteristics, their unique personality and their unique skills to be able to find a path."
In the streets
So, how has street racing fared without Big Willie? Because he isn't widely known today — and the scene lives on in his absence. Is there any sign of his influence? The Times headed to the streets he once ruled to find out. It took weeks to find a race — partly because of the clandestine nature of the competitions. But, eventually, it happened. One night, on a deserted road in South L.A., a parade of high-performance cars squared off in the darkness. That is, until the cops showed up and sent everyone fleeing.
The good and the bad
The good and the bad that can go down when fast cars are unleashed on the streets of L.A. — it can be intoxicating. It also is a reminder of Big Willie's audacity — and that of Los Angeles. Don't forget that even if things eventually fell apart, Willie was met at several crucial junctures by cops and politicians who wanted to help him. Remember the courage of a city that embraced the idea that Willie put forward — and gave him the tools to use street racing to make things safer and more unified. Willie was adamant about what cars could do for the world. "When it comes to wheels — white, black, brown and yellow; male and female; young and old; rich or poor; from gangbangers to law enforcement — with that formula you can pull your communities together," he said. "What you need is a raceway park in every city and town in the United States."
Out racing tonight
Big Willie was a complicated man, but his dream was simple. He believed in the unifying bond of fast cars. Willie took that idea far — but fell short of his ultimate goal of a racetrack that would outlast him. But there are those who could still pick up where he left off. And it’s a safe bet they’re out racing tonight in Los Angeles.
Well past midnight, a spot near 135th Street in South L.A. was swarmed. Cars were double parked, blocking the road. Hip-hop blared from a black SUV. Someone was selling pupusas out of a van. The pent-up energy of 100 teenagers and twentysomethings thickened the air. Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians. It was getting louder. Bets were called out. Five dollars on the Camaro. Twenty bucks on the Mustang. Two cars were doing burnouts, preparing to race. They were roaring, revving their engines as they tried to time the start just right. A man stood in front of them. He was calm — smiling and joking with the other racers. He was in his element as he stared down the drivers, making eye contact with them. It was unsafe. It was illegal. But there were no fights and there were no crashes, even if there were close calls. This man made it that way by quietly exerting his authority. He raised his arm — he was getting ready to start the race. He turned for only a second, but the back of his vest caught the light. “Street Racers International,” it read. This Brotherhood member — at least for this night — had stepped into Big Willie’s role. In a way, it was Big Willie. He was there. He’s wherever racers come together in peace. The man in the vest dropped his arm. And the drivers sped off into the night.
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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.