Socially, many parallels exist between the 1960s and today, but for car enthusiasts, there isn’t a better time to be alive.
Modern muscle embodies many of the same elements that made domestic cars from 1964-1974 so endearing. In addition to killer exhaust notes, aggressive hood scoops, bright colors and cool graphics, modern muscle cars are safer, more efficient, and more powerful. But the parallels between the late 1960s and today doesn’t stop at cars.
The protests regarding the Vietnam War in the 1960s paved the way for civil rights movements to gain traction, like women’s liberation and sectors of organized labor. Together, employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, was eliminated, and it created new opportunities for many Americans.
Fifty years later enthusiasts have celebrated anniversaries for Mustang and Camaro, with Challenger celebrating its golden anniversary in 2020. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March, and Black Lives Matter, have once again brought similar social issues to light and further bring equal treatment and rights to people in America.
Police brutality is an ongoing topic of conversation, and efforts to curb street racing continue as production cars become more powerful.
Recently, I attended a Motor Press Guild meeting held at the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin, California. The meeting was sponsored by Mecum Auctions which took the opportunity to preview its upcoming Monterey sale and present a special guest: Daniel Miller.
Miller is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times and host of its docu-series podcast, “Larger Than Life.” The series explores the life of legendary Los Angeles street racer Big Willie Robinson, whom Miller describes as a 6-foot-6, muscle-bound gearhead that used street racing in the muscle car era to heal a city torn apart by the violence of the Watts Riots in 1965.
What is “Larger Than Life” All About?
According to Miller, Willie’s focus was on making street racing safer. His vision of unity flourished in the ’70s when he ran a drag strip on an island in the Port of Los Angeles. Everyone was welcome, and anyone could get a race. For Willie, “Run Whatcha Brung” evolved into his life’s credo and became his rallying cry in a city beset with racial strife.
According to Miller, Willie’s charm allowed him to befriend stars like Paul Newman, and the city’s first black mayor, Tom Bradley, in addition to Otis Chandler, publisher of the L.A. Times. These ties aided Willie and his Brotherhood of Street Racers to collaborate with the Los Angeles Police Department and bring peace to city streets.
The series shares never-before-revealed details uncovered through Miller’s investigative work. He includes personal stories from Willie’s inner circle and members of the International Brotherhood of Street Racers.
Miller said that he had grown up with cars in Los Angeles and despite working at the L.A. Times, he had never heard of Willie. Miller poses the question of how someone so prolific could fade into obscurity?
Who Was Big Willie?
The podcast comes at an interesting time. Miller’s question stayed with me and prompted me to do an investigation of my own.
It is important to note that street racing is an illegal activity and is not encouraged. It’s also an epidemic that has plagued streets since the days of the horse and buggy. Southern California has always been notorious for street racing, in particular, the Los Angeles area.
I spoke with a few retired street racers that wish to remain anonymous to protect their privacy, who were involved with the scene at the time, though not necessarily with Willie or the Brotherhood. They remember Willie’s indisputable “larger than life persona” came across as imposing, and he was an evangelist of sorts. He is remembered best as a showman preaching a cause using media attention as a means to measure his success.
Among street racers, Willie was most prevalent within the South Central area of Los Angeles from 1966 to 1974. People listened to him because he believed so much in what he was saying. However, the police did not endorse all of his races. In some occasions, Willie used police scanners to alert him if the cops were coming to break up the race. People always surrounded him, and it was clear he liked to be in control. His group mimicked military organization: each member had a rank, a purpose, and a uniform – some of which adorned a “Master of Arms” patch.
While reporting the story, Miller uncovered that Willie lied about a significant detail in his past. You will have to listen to the podcast to learn how that particular detail altered others’ perception of him. When evaluating the lie, Miller urges listeners to remember the context of this era and that Willie was a black man from New Orleans without a college degree. It paints a compelling picture, but not a complete picture.
Context Offers Clarity
During this time Ford created an entirely new segment of automobiles when the Mustang became available in 1964 and produced its millionth pony car in 1966. Chevrolet entered the market with the Camaro in 1967 and Dodge followed suit with the Challenger in 1970.
By 1968, California was responsible for 20-percent of Mustang sales; thus, Ford created a high-performance variant based on a GT500 prototype and dubbed it the “California Special.” Production was limited to around 4,000 cars, and it sold in just two California sales districts: Los Angeles and San Jose. The same year, by Willie’s account, the LAPD urged him to create the Brotherhood of Street Racers.
By 1971, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty had banned Big Willie and the Brotherhood from street racing. Then, in 1973, Willie got news from newly-elected Mayor Tom Bradley, that he would be able to run a drag strip.
To provide more context, 1973 was the same year the OPEC oil embargo took effect. Gas prices raised by 350-percent and the consequences felt throughout the economy.
Some of the most significant effects included a 55 mph speed limit across the nation, and a federal set of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards were created. The CAFE standards required a fleet average of 18 mpg by the 1978 model year, rising to 20 mpg by 1980. The average was 13 mpg in 1973.
Ultimately this contributed to many hasty, ill-planned and poorly executed forays into making small cars which proved devastating to some brands’ reputations. It also led to the death of muscle cars as automakers initially struggled to meet the new fuel economy targets while performance and power were quickly disregarded.
The Los Angeles Times reported in February 1974 that gas siphoning was rampant throughout the city. Criminals used a tube to get gas out of a parked car, so many car owners bought lockable gas caps. Dealers in L.A. reported shortages of these anti-theft devices.
The push to boost fuel economy wasn’t all bad. It brought a wave of technology innovations that continue today, including turbocharging, lightweight materials, front-wheel drive, eight-speed transmissions, direct fuel injection, and many others.
It begs the question: How much of the reduced racing should be attributed to Willie or the gas crisis?
New Cars And Drivers Create New Legends
In the first ten years of operation, the track had been shut down and reopened over 11 times. A second gas crisis occurred in 1979, and consumer demand turned from American gas-guzzling cars to smaller, more efficient cars built by Japanese companies.
The track was closed in 1984, and many of the racers initially under the influence of Big Willie had since grown up, progressed in life, and moved onto other cars and other forms of racing. Willie no longer ruled the scene and had already begun to fade.
The track briefly reopened in 1993 but was closed for good in 1995 amid the crime, racial tension fueled by the Rodney King riots. Street racing was the least of the LAPD’s problems due to the high crime rate across the city.
“It was a very violent period,” Sgt. Jesse Garcia, an officer in charge of LAPD’s illegal street racing and tracking unit, said in an interview with Jalopnik. “Street racing was very low on anyone’s radar. It wasn’t even on the back burner.”
There was a younger generation of drivers on the road, like Stephan Papadakis who became a drag racing legend with a different kind of car, a front-wheel-drive yellow Honda.
Papadakis remembers options for legalized drag racing were limited, but there was a powerful sense of connection in the street racing scene. Car clubs were community-based and composed of different races driving different cars which came into contact with one another at various meets.
Has Anything Changed?
L.A. Weekly published a story in 2017 that highlighted law enforcement’s new ways to discourage street racing: putting down rumble strips on famous streets used by local racers.
Donald GaLaz, leader of the Brotherhood of Street Racers organization that Willie created, was quoted in the story. He called the strips “a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.” He commented that “They’re going to put those strips down, and we’re just going to move to another street. That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s not the solution.”
Much like the cars we drive, street racing is always evolving. Papadakis along with the rest of the younger tuner crowd grew up, just as Willie and his generation did before them. The desire to be reckless fades and those with a genuine need for speed find legal outlets. Today, Papadakis runs his race shop where he builds yellow drift cars that send 1,000 horsepower to the rear wheels.
Like Willie, GaLaz advocated for a legalized outlet, specifically the one Willie ran in his day. GaLaz says city officials have consistently ignored the idea.
Outside of opening a facility that was never meant to be a racetrack, there are alternatives to curb street racing.
Answering Miller’s Question
Miller posed the question: how someone so prolific could fade into obscurity?
Though it has been roughly 50 years since Willie initially gained traction and he has gone mostly unrecognized for his humanitarian efforts, his impact on the community is not forgotten. Those who knew Willie unanimously agree his intentions were always pure and he did something right.
My answer to Miller’s question is this: It’s all about the context. Willie may not have been a mainstream figure among all those in Los Angeles at the time, but he was within his area, and he was among car people who liked to street race. His passing was noticed in 2012, and his legacy lives on.