"Big" Willie Robinson, founder and president of the International and National Brotherhood of Street Racers, died this past Saturday. He was 69.
Robinson, 6'6" and over 300 pounds, was the epitome of the gentle giant. He was not only a fixture of Los Angeles car culture, he was THE fixture, bringing together Bloods and Crips and others of all ages and backgrounds on city streets and race tracks. He was such a peacemaker that L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley helped him realize his dream in the 1990s, loaning Robinson's group land on the city's Terminal Island where Brotherhood Raceway flourished for several years.
I knew Robinson well, first meeting him in the late 1970s when Robinson, always with his wife, Tomiko, "Little Mama," at his side, and his group staged drag races on streets throughout Los Angeles, especially in the Watts/Inglewood/Compton areas. Streets would be shut down and the police looked the other way as a drop in crime was seemingly always a by-product of the races. Gang colors were not allowed, but lots of money and cars changed hands as racers trailered their not-street-legal cars to the underground events.
Robinson was born and raised in New Orleans and came to southern California in the early 1960s. He was one of the first African-Americans to serve in the Green Berets in Vietnam and settled in the L.A. area when he returned to the U.S. His trademark beret, fatigues and Brotherhood colors were known worldwide, and his celebrity followed him closely. At a film premier, Robinson was as well or better known than the stars.
Willie was a warm, gregarious, helpful man who assisted more than one racer down on his luck. I was fortunate enough to feature him a couple of times on my KTLA/TV5 Car Dude segments in the 1990s.
Willie's great love, Tomiko, passed away a few years ago and Willie never quite recovered from that loss. They did everythnig together, from racing to body-building to traveling the country, making appearances as special guests at drag races nationwide.
Willie leaves us, as Carroll Shelby did just two weeks ago, without a book or movie about his life. All I can do is continue to try and convince some of these great car guys that they have stories which must be passed down for posterity.
Willie, like Shelby, was one of the last of a great generation of car guys, the likes of which we won't see again.