It's a sunny Saturday, and spectators at Brotherhood Raceway Park are holding their cars. At the starting line a Ford and a Chevy, both souped up, lay down serious rubber. Their spinning wheels spew billows of white smoke. The noise is like Velcro tearing inside your skull.
But the source of the auditory agony isn't tire screech. It's the chubby fellow whose screams are assaulting a defenseless public-address system. His name is Willie Andrew Robinson III, but he prefers to be called Big Willie.
"Which car you want?" yells Big Willie. His question is directed to the track announcer, a frequent target of Big Willie's good-natured hustles. "I got 20 hot dogs with chili and onions against whatever you can put up. You beat me, you can throw a picnic. Invite everyone you know. Maybe even have some leftovers. C'mon now, don't be scared. If you're scared to bet, you deserve to lose."
The announcer picks the Ford. "Bung mistake," says Big Willie, cackling.
The colored bulbs on the starter's tree light up one at a time, top to bottom: yellow, yellow, then green. Big Willie implores the racers, "C'mon, cut a good light and run straight." The Chevy does precisely that, squealing down the quarter-mile track to a convincing victory.
"Hooo-eee!" he shouts. "My lucky day! Just got Thanksgiving dinner squared away! Hot dogs with chili and onions!"
Two more cars pull up to the line. Big Willie turns to his foil with a toothy grin. "Listen," he says. "I'll give you a chance to get some hot dogs back. I have a heart."
He's a man with a heart, all right. And a cause. That is why he has worked so hard to preserve this drag strip on Terminal Island, at the western end of Los Angeles Harbor. The raceway, which has gone in and out of existence for the past 20 years, is a demilitarized zone of sorts. Gangs from south-central Los Angeles, from the barrios at the city's eastern edge and from the San Fernando Valley come here to slam down the accelerators of rusted Pintos, sleek Camaros, jacked-up station wagons and other moving contraptions. Overseeing it is 52-year-old Big Willie, a 6'6", 300-pound peacekeeper.
"Black, white, yellow, brown, skinheads, Nazi party members, Muslims, we got 'em all," he says. "They're all here at the track, and they're communicatin'. And once they start communicatin", they start likin' each other, and once they start likin' each other, they forget about the hate." Big Willie's operation consists of' several acres of asphalt, a line of cracked barricades and a POW-MIA flag popping in the sea breeze. The site is called Brotherhood Raceway because brotherhood is what Big Willie has preached since 1966, when he returned from a two-year tour in Vietnam and formed the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, a group of hot-rodders who provide an antidote to racial unrest. The only requirements for membership are a vehicle and a lead foot.
In the early days, members gathered at night on deserted streets and in back alleys, holding races that drew hundreds of fans. Drag racing on city streets is illegal in Los Angeles, and the police considered shutting down the enterprise. Ultimately, they decided to look the other way. "They would come and help out with traffic control," says Big Willie. "We weren't supposed to be there, but we were bringing peace to the streets."