"We are what we remember, and even when we invent, we write what we remember. Every line is a fragment of something else; that is the great collective project that we call culture."
—Liner note on Granta magazine, issue 126
One balmy night, CC photographer/managing editor Don Green and I drove deep into William Andrew Robinson III's neighborhood. We were hot on a story about scrape racing and to get the goods we'd need to be right where that stuff usually unreeled. I don't know if this aberration is still in practice today, but then it was a compelling though obscure sub-stratum of the Kalifornia Kar Kulture.
An extension of the ever-popular low-rider technology, a scrape car was fitted with hydraulics rather than conventional suspension. Magnesium pads maybe half the thickness of a cigarette pack were stuck to the frame just behind the front wheels. At a predetermined moment, the driver would release the hydraulic pressure and bring the car to its knees. The front end flopped down and the pads kissed the tarmac, creating a furious shower of sparks, and so the best car produced the longest trail of white fire. Just a harmless, innocent goof, really, but a novel and spectacularly effective way of saying "we are here, can you see us now?" Currently, the infamous tagger continues this expression in a completely different way, but the message has not changed.
Don and I needed entrée to this phenomenon, but that wasn't something two skinny, long-haired gremmies would be able to pick up outside the door on 8490 Sunset Boulevard. Green had had many encounters with Willie at a gas station owned by Ernie Nicholson (who raced a trick A/GS Barracuda) and had even shot his car for an American Racing advert because that's what hoops Big had on his undeniable Daytona. Don had attended USC so he knew the landscape fairly well, but we were also acutely aware that we'd be crossing an invisible line.
When I met Big Willie, it wasn't at a street race or at the sanctioned Terminal Island facility; it was at his "house" deep in South Central, the work-out room where he maintained his commanding physical presence. Robinson placed Sixth in the tall class in the Amateur Athletic Union's Mr. America contest in 1976. Quitters do not follow such a path. Willie was no quitter.
As you know, Willie wisely promoted organized drag racing as a way to unite people of all persuasions—African-American, white cats, Asians, Mexicans, skinheads, Nazis, and Muslims. Perhaps the most astounding aspect was persuading hard-core gang rivals to drop their gats and take aggression out on tarmac instead. On Friday and Saturday nights, he'd join dozens of others who had gathered at a lot on Crenshaw Boulevard before racing on deserted streets and deserted alleys as the L.A. County Street Racers. The cops, and soon Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, realized that the throng naturally gravitated to Willie. Eventually, his dream became sanitary and then acceptable—the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers. Willie and his partner, Tomiko, left us way too soon, but the legacy endures.
So the gray boys came through his door unannounced, as if by fluke. When Willie saw us, he sat up from the bench, rolling his bull shoulders and neck. "How'd you get here," he asked calmly but incredulously. "You shouldn't be here. You really need an escort to get in here, you know?"
That's the only conversation that I can remember. Don Green told me that he has no memory of it at all. Obviously, we found out where the cars would be dropping that evening and headed out. I don't know if we had an escort in the car with us, if we were following his lead, or if we had none at all. I don't remember any of the action, but I can still feel the heat from that white-hot shower of disintegrating magnesium. We are what we remember.