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.'"
Photo of Willie in Van Nuys, California, during a Car Craft shoot in 1969 (for our Jan. ’7
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.
Bill Chaffin tells us that when someone did anything at all to help the Brotherhood, Willi
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."