Memorial service for “Big Willie” Robinson, the man who started the International Brotherhood of Street Racers, will be held Friday at the Faith Central Bible Church in Inglewood. Robinson died Saturday after a long struggle with vascular disease. He was 70.
Willie A. Robinson formed the Brotherhood after the Watts riots of 1965 to try and encourage young drag racers to engage in positive activities rather than the drugs and violence that were becoming commonplace at the time. Robinson believed that he could change society by bringing “peace through racing,” as he described it.
Originally from New Orleans, Big Willie served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, but his life’s work was to get a drag strip to get racers off the streets and into organized competition. Robinson and his friends would find large abandoned industrial areas or retail parking lots where everyone would meet to race. After decades of diligence, he began to work with the Los Angeles Police Department and then-Councilman Tom Bradley to form the Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island near the Los Angeles Harbor. For $10 anyone who passed a rudimentary tech inspection could run the track.
By 1971, Robinson and wife Tomiko, who passed in 2007, often participated in races themselves in his and her Hemi Daytona Chargers.
It was argued that the drag racing scene, which exploded in the 1990s, was born in such races in the decades before they achieved mainstream popularity. Thousands of racers and fans would come out to be part of the events. The Brotherhood reportedly has more than a million members.
At a time when racial tension were high, Big Willie Robinson was able to bring together people of all races and backgrounds, and according to reports the crime rate would decline while the races were going on. The program was so successful in diffusing neighborhood problems that it is believed to have aided Los Angeles in keeping order after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
The Terminal Island track, which was open weekends for 21 years, closed in 1996 to be replaced by a coal dock and shipping-container storage.