LOS ANGELES - "Big Willie" Robinson was a 6-foot-6, 300-pound former Los Angeles street racer, a gentle giant who promoted organized drag racing as a way to unite people of all races and classes and ease racial tensions.
"When you get around cars, man, there ain't no colors, just engines," he said in 1981.
Willie Andrew Robinson III, 69, the founding president of the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers, which ran a drag strip on Terminal Island for many years, died May 19 of an infection that led to heart failure, said Bill Chaffin, a close friend.
Robinson was working at a body shop in 1962 when he bought a '57 Olds and began street racing. Drafted into the Army in 1964, he served with the Special Forces in Vietnam before returning to Los Angeles in 1966.
On Friday and Saturday nights, he'd join dozens of other young racers who gathered at a large parking lot before racing on various streets and commercial-area alleys.
"When he first went to the lot, he was just another racer, but everybody looked up to him because of his size, his knowledge of engines and racing," said Paul Norwood, an executive vice president of the brotherhood group.
"He could go up to two gang members from two different gangs who were ready to kill each other and have them put down their weapons. That's just the kind of guy he was," Norwood said.
After the 1965 Watts riots, Norwood said, "there was a lot of tension and the police thought this [racing] was a good way for the people to get rid of their anxiety and anger by allowing them to do this on weekends."
The nonprofit organization managed the steet races, but the goal was to get onto a racetrack.
In 1974, the Brotherhood Raceway Park opened on an old Navy airfield on Terminal Island, for which the organization paid $1,000 a month in rent and charged $5 admission.