Saturday, May 19, 2012


There are a lot of people out there much more qualified than me to write this. I never met Willie in person. I never raced on the street or the track with him or his organization. Never stepped foot on his storied Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island at Long Beach, California.

There are several mentions of Willie and how his actions and words influenced me, on this blog. The influence was profound, to say the least, especially considering he was a total stranger. About a year ago, I decided to do something about it. It took some help, but I eventually tracked Willie down to a van in a parking lot, somewhere in the L.A. basin. My intention was to see about the possibility of an interview and thank him for having made a positive impact on my life. After a few minutes on the phone, he began to sense that I wanted nothing more than the truth from him and he began to open up to me. Over the proceeding months, we came to trust and even confide in each other, sharing hopes and fears, frustrations and celebrations, memories and future plans. Willie often called me from the waiting room in the Westwood VA hospital, where they were chasing down a stubborn infection in his foot, tweaking a pacemaker they'd installed, and generally trying to keep him tuned up. When I called him, Willie was usually in the van (he called it his "trailer"), in a Universal Studios parking lot, where boredom seemed to be draining him dry. It's been almost a month now since we last spoke. Willie died almost exactly 12 hours ago. But boredom didn't kill Big Willie Robinson.

As he explained it to me, Willie did a stint in Vietnam for the Special Forces, taking AK-47 fire on at least three occasions. Although he received his orders directly from the CIA, treatment for his wounds was provided at pedestrian VA hospitals (44 years worth of it). After returning stateside, Willie threw himself into street racing and came to see it as one of the few affordable goal oriented activities for disaffected L.A. youth, and a healthier alternative to gang life. The L.A.P.D. approached Willie during the LA riots for help and he managed to persuade a lot of people to look at the bigger picture and work for the common good. One thing they all had in common was an appreciation for a badass ride. At that point, the Brotherhood of Street Racers went high profile and Willie's connections with City Hall eventually resulted in the on again/off again drag strip at Terminal Island. While the gates at Brotherhood Raceway were open, street racing activity dropped dramatically. When the track was closed, locals became nostalgic for the more peaceful days of the riots.

We didn't get into how Willie met his wife, Tomiko. But I know that after they met and married, it was rare to find a photo of one without the other in the frame. I wrote Tomiko's obituary not too long ago. On the phone with Willie, I asked him about life without her. After a long pause, he answered in a semi-whisper,  "Tomiko was my life partner, my security, my everything. We were like Siamese twins. You know, in 2002, we worked together, providing security for U.S. Army intelligence. We did all that racing together. And after 38 years together, she died in my arms. It ain't easy."

Friends tell me Willie's physical decline began immediately after Tomiko's death and only picked up momentum from there. Willie told it differently. He said he was working with street gangs in New Orleans, and while helping one of them move a rollaway toolbox in a garage, it fell on his foot, splitting it wide open. Moments later, he received a call from the producers of the Fast and Furious films, asking him to come to L.A. and sign contracts for three new installments of the series, based on his life. Willie ignored his friend's pleas to get treatment for the foot and flew to L.A.

In Los Angeles, the studio supplied Willie with the van to live in (he'd lost his home after Tomiko's death) and he began consulting on the scripts. Friends drove him to the V.A. for treatment of his foot, but Gangreen had set in. The foot was soon amputated, followed by one leg, then the other, as the infection refused to respond to treatment. We discussed my wish to write his biography, but Universal now owned the rights to it and had two staff writers ahead of me on the waiting list. They told me I could write it if the other writers opted out for any reason. As of today, it's still out of my hands. That will work out however it's meant to.

Did Willie Robinson die of an infection, a broken heart, or some kind of negligence? A combination of the three? More will be revealed. Personally, I don't think it was any of those things. Willie told me, "In 1979, I was working with gang members in Chicago. Things were really bad and I didn't know if I was going to make it. Then God says to me, 'You still got work to do.' I told God I'd do my best, for making me Big Willie." From here, it looks like he just gave everything he had to life, until there wasn't anything left.

                             Snapshots of Big Willie from the Brotherhood of Street Racers website...

                                                             Big Willie and Tomiko

                        Big Willie (holding the Death Proof DVD) in the van that would be his last home.

                                               Willie's ride, in his driveway in Inglewood.

                                    Still preaching Peace Through Racing, just a few months ago.

And a few to illustrate the bare knuckle spirit that's been missing from America for way too long. These are Willie's children (over a million members, worldwide). They haven't forgotten and never will...

Every time we talked, Willie made it a point to tell me I was no less a veteran than him, just because I didn't see any combat. He encouraged my writing, drove me to work harder on my relationship with my girlfriend, and to make time for smelling the roses. And I'm just some stranger who called him on the phone.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Automotive Writers are Similar to Real People

  IMAGERY: Livin' the dream. REALITY: If I live to be a thousand, I'll never afford a Deuce. This car is built and owned by my buddy Dr. Lockjaw. I forced my camera on him and made him document the day I drove a Deuce.

WHAT YOU MAY HAVE HEARD: After all the fuss over my recent double deadline panic (which turned out to be a triple deadline before the clutch dust settled), it seems an appropriate time to shed some light on the reality of the automotive journalist. The popular misconception is that of an arrogant and wealthy playboy, shredding asphalt from coast to coast in factory-loaned supercars, then unwinding at poolside with exotic drinks and supermodels while lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills. While I've heard of a couple publishers who might fit that cartoon image, the actual writers I know live a lot like me. We pick up the dog poop in the yard and pay our taxes, barely existing on a job we're devoted to, just because we're hopelessly in love with the subject matter and the creative process itself. I can't speak for those other guys, but here's how it plays out for me.

WHAT I FOUND OUT: A friend recently suggested Stephen King's "On Writing" as an interesting read. She was right - I was hardwired into it from the opening line. For my tastes, it's much meatier than his fiction. Then I got to the part where King describes his typical day. I nearly dropped the book when I read that he has a dedicated writing room where he's not to be disturbed. He's generally in there from mid morning 'til early afternoon, five days a week, with his phone turned off, fully involved with crafting the perfect sentence.

WHERE I WRITE: I have a dedicated writing room. It's the spare bedroom in my girlfriend's house. It's also her dedicated computer room and doubles as a dedicated storage area and is a hotly contested dedicated sleeping area for our dog and cat. You can't imagine the traffic in that tiny space. Every minute is like rush hour in Los Angeles during an earthquake with Santa Ana winds whipping up one firestorm after another around us. Inevitably, our phones are both turned on, as we're both dependent on news from the outside world to do our jobs. The phones tend to ring a lot. At times, the cacophony exceeds a Jerry Lewis telethon call center. My calls tend to be a 50/50 mix of retired buddies hustling car parts, and pushy magazine feature hopefuls (or pushy friends or relatives of magazine feature hopefuls).  Yes, my phone has caller I.D. But I now have so many contacts, I can't remember my own number, let alone anyone else's. And any call could be the needle-in-a-haystack that can complete the puzzle de jour - I have to take it.

WHAT I ACTUALLY DO IN THERE: You've heard it a hundred times: "Writing is 90% research and 10% writing". It's true that research takes up about 90% of my time. Untold hours of chasing down photo ownership and getting photo permissions chews up a large percentage of that percentage. Another slice of the pie is gobbled up by processing, editing, and organizing said photos. The rulebook says I can't even count the time I spend cussing my lack of computer skills and chasing my tail around binary codes, HTML hieroglyphics, and other cryptic digital evils. I have to eat that lost time and chalk it up to the cost of doing business. And a lot of time is spent pitching stories to publishers and editors. This leaves about 0.007% for writing, which is squeezed in between the aforementioned distractions. Not ideal, but I'll take it. I crank up the computer upon waking (anywhere from 6:00 to 9:00AM) and shut it down just before dragging my dead ass to bed (between 1:00 and 3:00AM). I work seven days a week, holidays and all. Especially holidays. In the process, I've become a championship-contending power napper.

WHAT I DO OUTSIDE OF THE ROOM: The rest of my life takes place out in Realityville. Grocery store, parts store, Post Office - where everybody knows my name. The dog gets walked twice a day, so the neighbors and I know more than needed about each other. The mailman (another member of my lifeline team) knows I have a weakness for football. He has a stalker's obsession about it. I know he's breaking multiple Federal laws in his quest to keep tabs on every player and coach in North American college and pro ball. But I'm dependent on the daily mail and my guy delivers the news. He gets bonus points for saving me time reading the sports page of the newspaper.

You get the picture. I have a life. I'm in a long term relationship, which entails a lot more than just being in a relationship. I have many friends and we care about/for each other. I have a whole other life as a songwriter/musician. Meanwhile, my journalism workload is steadily increasing. I recently quit my gig at the local dragstrip to make more time for writing. This life is beyond the dreams of an unemployed chassis fabricator who was working part time manual labor gigs while living alone in his car, less than two years ago. I'm actually celebrating every noisy and messy distraction in my rich and full life. I savor every minute of my work and my play, which are one and the same anyway. How could life possibly get any better than this? Supermodels and supercars look like fun. I suspect both are high maintenance enough to quickly kill the buzz though. I'll never know. Ignorance is bliss. And I'm a happy guy. The luckiest guy in town.


 Spending some quality time with Sheila the Wonder Dog - my four legged reality slap and spiritual adviser.

            Playing music for a Saturday afternoon gathering of friends with uber fiddler Crystal Reeves.

                       Attending a friend's wedding with soul mate and life saver, Sweet Shellski.

                                                  Chasing a buck to pay for gas and food.