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The Passing of a Drag Racing Legend - Willie Robinson

Big Willie

By Tori Tellem

However, Brotherhood wasn't run by the NHRA, even though the governing body had contacted Willie. "He told them, nope, we're not going by your strict rules," Paul explains. "We have kids that are dying because they're racing on the street, and we want to make it safe for them. This track was for kids who could never get into a race car and drive professionally." Someone else Willie said no to? The mafia. They wanted to sell cigarettes on site.

While Brotherhood Raceway Park was open, the LAPD documented a 60 percent drop in the crime rate. Even on the track, there was harmony. Bloods, Crips, Caucasian, and Asian gangs—they all came out on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. They raced. They wrenched. Most importantly, they got along. One thing Willie was adamant about was there was to be no illegal activity at the track, including betting. "He'd just tell everyone to bet hot dogs," Bill says. Bill and Paul recall only one act of violence at the track, which involved a shooting between two gang members over a girl. They weren't rival gangs; the shooter just happened to know his enemy would be there that night. "The track was home turf, and if you know anything about gang warfare, you know you don't go to your own turf to shoot somebody. You go to their turf. So when racers came to our track, that was home turf to everybody," Paul says.

This was a place where you might even spot a gang member talking to the CEO of a major automaker. Tookie Williams, cofounder of the Crips, was seen many times talking to different heads of General Motors, Fabian tells Car Craft. Judges who had at one point sentenced some of the racers told Willie how impressed they were with what he'd established. "They'd tell him, ‘I'm finding people I put in prison out here with gang members they'd normally kill, and they're helping them with their cars,'" Paul recalls. "They'd be wonderfully shocked." President Bill Clinton was also a fan of Willie's work. As president, he had instituted a bill called Midnight Basketball, which put taxpayer money toward doing the same thing Willie was succeeding at without financial assistance: getting kids off the street and reducing crime and violence. Just replace racing with basketball.

When he came into town, Clinton asked to meet with Willie, hoping he could shed light on why the basketball initiative wasn't working. "It's called wheels," Paul remembers Willie telling the president. "Everybody has wheels. Could be a skateboard, roller skates, a bicycle, a car, a truck. And when do you have competition? When you think you have something that's faster than someone else's. When you take a gang member off the street from shooting or robbing someone and have something else that brings their adrenaline up and that they enjoy doing, you stop the violence." Simply put, peace through wheels.

But things weren't always peaceful behind the scenes of the track. It was open for a year and a half before being shut down—for the first time. Ultimately, it would be shut down 11 times for various—and sometimes odd—reasons, most commonly so that it could be used as a storage facility for imported vehicles being shipped to the nearby harbor. It has now been closed since 1995. When the track was open, things weren't always any easier. At one point the Los Angeles Harbor Commission wanted $1,000 a week in case a riot broke out on the property. Think of it as a restoring-things-back-to-normal fee.

In the beginning, it didn't cost much to lease the property, but attached to it was a 30-day revocable permit, meaning it could be shut down in 30 days. That made it difficult to get big sponsors. But there was one promise Willie made to Mayor Bradley from the beginning: He and his "officers" would always fight to reopen the track, but during that time the racing would never return to the streets. Sure, street racing continued, and more than likely with some of the regular racers from Brotherhood Raceway Park, but they knew not to get recognized or they'd be dealing with Willie directly. Possibly a fate worse than what would any rival gang could do.

Although Willie and his wife, Tomiko, never had children, in many ways Brotherhood Raceway Park and all its racers were their extended family. "All the years we were open, I watched kids come in the track at 14, 15 years old, grow up, have kids, then their kids came out, grew up, and had kids. We had three generations out there," Paul says. "Anybody could have had this idea, but it took a guy like Willie to make it work," Bill says. Adds Paul, "What Willie did for drag racing wasn't so much for drag racing as it was for the enthusiast who loved drag racing."

By Tori Tellem
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