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...
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.