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A Peacekeeping Force
Ken McAlpine
September 19, 1994
Warring gangs downshift at Big Willie Robinson's drag strip
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September 19, 1994

A Peacekeeping Force

Warring gangs downshift at Big Willie Robinson's drag strip

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Finding a tract for a bona fide drag strip wasn't easy. There was the matter of noise, and the scarcity of unused land in the city—not to mention the brotherhood's potentially combustible membership. But Big Willie persisted, and after a long search, the races moved to Terminal Island in 1974. Over the next decade, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission shut the raceway down several times because it needed the land for storage or port access. Each time, Big Willie would pester then Mayor Tom Bradley and the city council for help in finding a new spot by showing up at council meetings and making speeches about how his strip helped keep the peace. "I've never known anybody more persistent," says Bradley. "He just won't give up on his dream. He can be so persuasive that many people who at the outset are opposed to his ideas are finally overwhelmed."

Almost 30 years after his crusade began, Big Willie is still at it because the ills he has fought with missionary zeal—racism and violence—are still alive and well. So is his manifesto: If you're racing, you're not killing.

Big Willie would rather press ahead than look back in anger. Back to his childhood in the 1940s in New Orleans, with its separate schools, separate churches, separate racetrack seating for black people. Back to Louisiana State University in 1960, where he ambled out of history class one day to find the windows broken, headlights smashed and tires cut on his prized 1953 Oldsmobile hot rod. Back to yesterday's news stories of children gunned down in the streets. "There's a lot of ghosts around me, lot of ghosts," says Big Willie. "I don't have time to sit down and cry. I got to keep pushin' forward to bring more people together, so we don't have this crazy violence out there."

Everyone is welcome at the track, where the motto is: Run what you brung, tow what you blow. Big-rig trucks, Volkswagen buses, go-karts, bicycles, dog sleds and a motor home built out of the front half of an airplane have all rumbled down Big Willie's drag strip. The eclecticism of the machinery is matched only by that of the crowd: tattooed muscle bikers, Hispanic kids in white T-shirts and floppy pants, bony black youths sporting hair nets and oversized jewelry, motorheads elbow deep in engines, families sprawled in beach chairs and eating picnic lunches. Even Big Willie's mother, Lula Mae Robinson, has raced here, piloting her Cadillac with aplomb. "Man can show up naked driving with his privates, he's welcome here," says Big Willie.

The melting-pot atmosphere is due in large part to Big Willie's disregard for profits. Ten dollars gets you in the gate, but Big Willie lets in an armada of folks for free: veterans, policemen, firefighters, Big Brothers of America and anyone who can't afford the admission. "It's not good business," says Tomiko Robinson, Big Willie's wife of 25 years and his assistant at the strip. "But it's the way Willie wants it."

Big Willie is not, however, a starry-eyed softy. His supporters go on about the size of his heart; but it's public knowledge that he once ripped a car door off its hinges to rescue his wife from her race car after a crash. Brotherhood members police the track, but it's Big Willie's presence that ensures calm. On the rare occasions when a fracas seems imminent, Big Willie halts the racing, collars the suspects and drags them out on the track, where he berates them in front of the crowd. As he shouts, he jabs the air with a deli-pickle-sized finger while the sinners stare at the ground. "By the time he's done," says Tomiko, "they're so embarrassed they've forgotten why they're angry."

Big Willie makes ends meet at home by doing assorted odd jobs. Despite the flexible admissions policy, the track stays solvent, thanks to a combination of municipal largess, private support and Big Willie's creative street bartering. He leases the strip from the city for $1 a month. The barricades and bleachers are on loan from the Long Beach Grand Prix. Local businesses chip in product prizes. Graffiti artists paint the signs. A lawyer agreed to represent the raceway pro bono after Big Willie used his street connections to locate the man's stolen car.

The folks along the strip say Big Willie has helped curb violence outside the raceway gates. "Since we've had this drag strip, things have been much more mellow," says Reggie Foley, a 26-year resident of Compton, a south-central L.A. neighborhood familiar with gang violence. "Man's doin' a wonderful job. We're thankful Willie believes."

Says Steve Soboroff, a former harbor commissioner, "L.A. could use a lot more people like Willie. So could the world."

At the moment, however, the world seems more concerned with commerce than with calming hotheaded kids. Next spring, a harbor expansion project is scheduled to gobble up the drag strip and replace it with a coal-exporting facility. Officials say they have no plans to furnish another spot for the strip.

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