Paul Norwood choked up while talking about Willie Robinson. It was understandable; their 46-year close friendship had come to an abrupt end when "Big Willie" died May, 2012, at age 69. The pain was still fresh, and the memories were beginning to be recognized as that—memories. No new ones would ever be made. Not for Paul, not for Willie's other friends, and not for countless drag racers. Yet those memories contribute to how he will be remembered: as a part of history.
Willie's influence notably began when he returned from Vietnam in his late 20s, where he was in the Special Forces. What was taking place in South Central Los Angeles—specifically, the Watts Riots of 1965—shook him to his core. He wanted the violence to end. He was also a racer; he and others would take to the streets—as safely as they could in residential neighborhoods, mind you—in the middle of the night. "The first time I met Willie was at a street race in September 1966," Paul says. "I saw him get out of his car that night. This humongous guy, well-dressed." Willie was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed more than 300 pounds, and as the years went on, his signature dress code became his military uniform, complete with beret.
About a month after that night, Willie put out the word that he wanted to talk to anyone interested in helping to organize street racing. He thought maybe, just maybe, organized street racing could at least ease racial tension and allow for some bonding over cars. "Drop your guns, knives, and fists, and settle with your wheels," was the concept Willie had, said racer and friend, Fabian. "Willie's whole thing was, ‘brotherhood through racing,'" Paul says. Explained another longtime friend, Bill "Deputy Bill" Chaffin of Team Sheriff Racing, "He wanted this effort to say, ‘All gang members are welcome. The designated area would be where we keep the peace; nobody fights, we stop the violence, and we stop hurting each other.' We just come together for the love of cars."
The first official meeting was held at the house of the mother of one of the attendees. Initially, six people showed. For four or five months, attendance grew and the meetings were held every Sunday with the "officers" at various locations, including a parking lot and the gym Willie managed. "I used to go into Watts and pick up the cofounders of the Crips and the Bloods gangs, and drive them to the meeting every Sunday," Paul says. "Here was a white guy driving into Watts picking up two black gang members. Opposite gangs that hated each other."
Out of those original six at the first meeting, only Willie and Paul stuck with it to present day.
Their organization began as the L.A. Street Racers, but within a couple weeks went through another name change, the L.A. County Street Racers, before adopting its permanent name a year later, the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers (bsr-international.ning.com). The new name only made sense, since by then things had gone international—Brotherhood members who were in the service started chapters in some of the countries in which they were stationed, such as Germany and France.
Willie's friends described him as easygoing and mellow. Those attributes, combined with knowing all about cars and racing (his favorite car to race was the Hemi Daytona, and he was a match racer himself), made it possible for him to gain respect—respect from both gang members and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). His efforts also caught the eye of the future mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, then a councilman. He did everything he could to try to help the Brotherhood, but Willie began to get frustrated with racing still being on the street, so he left California to tour different cities on the East Coast, which had asked him to try and duplicate the Brotherhood concept there.
While Willie was on the road, the now–Mayor Bradley found property on Terminal Island in San Pedro. It was an old airstrip that seemed to need only a 1⁄2-inch of asphalt to be ready to roll as a dragstrip. "It was very inexpensive to get going," Paul says. "Mayor Bradley called Willie and said, ‘I need you to come back to LA. I got you a piece of property.' That's when the first part of this started—and our nightmare began," Paul jokes. You will understand what he meant momentarily. The property was near the ocean, so its air was similar to Lions Drag Strip: ideal for racing. Many pro racers would eventually make this track their location of choice to test their cars. It was commercial property, so there was no noise curfew.
There was also no Twitter or Facebook back in the 1970s, so the opening of Brotherhood Raceway Park spread by word of mouth and through flyers distributed in the underground network of street racers. Willie wanted everyone to understand that "no matter what race, creed, religion, or color you are, it doesn't matter. We can all get together and have a good time racing," Bill says. And "run what you brung" was one of Willie's mottos. "In the first couple months, we were basically like, you have a safety belt? You have four good tires? OK, go ahead and run. Then eventually with some of the faster cars, we said, ‘you're going to need a helmet,' and if it was a certain speed, ‘you need a rollcage.'"