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RIP, Big Willie - Road Rage

Aaron Bonk
Aug 13, 2012
Htup 1207 01 o+road rage+aaron bonk Photo 1/2   |   HTUP-120700-RAGE

By the early 1990s, Honda-dominant Southern California street racing had begun to hit its stride. On any given night, hundreds of cars would migrate upon the industrial parks of Ontario, Long Beach, Compton, Sylmar, San Diego, and other locales. They came to race…because there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. Increased law enforcement along with legitimate venues directed at the import car population resulted in decreased street racing activity. But obliterate it, they did not.

Brotherhood Raceway Park, positioned on Terminal Island, adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles, came about as close as any to mitigating racing on the street and moving it to the track. Following the 1965 Watts riots, famed Los Angeles street racer and New Orleans native Andrew “Big Willie” Robinson organized some of the most monumental street races the country has ever seen in an effort to curb heightened racial tensions. Racers of every age and color attended what would later be referred to as The National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers. Robinson’s Brotherhood combated racial violence and helped establish racial unity through illegal street racing and later, with the help of the LAPD, through legally sanctioned bouts that would occupy a mile’s worth of thoroughfare right in the middle of Los Angeles. Robinson later worked alongside the city of Los Angeles to establish the area’s only legitimate dragstrip, thus forming Brotherhood Raceway Park in 1974. Robinson’s raceway ushered in an era of peace in otherwise uncertain times and, years later and until its closing in 1995, became among the first venues to welcome Honda-based drag racers with open arms. Big Willie died May 19, 2012 at age 70 after battling an undisclosed illness.

Htup 1208 01 o+road rage+big willie Photo 2/2   |   RIP, Big Willie - Road Rage

For every bad thing that street racing’s reaped, at least a dozen positive counterpoints can be made. Yet for the very fact that innocent lives have been taken at the hands of illegal street racing, it cannot be condoned without a callous heart. But certain undeniable truths cannot be overlooked either. Make no mistake—it is no coincidence that, as street racing grew, so did this very industry. Travel back to the early 1990s and you’ll no doubt encounter many of today’s industry leaders, each lined up along the underpasses, parking lots, and industrial wastelands that made up this counterculture population’s network of “tracks.” And chances are, if you participated in any form of early 1990s Southern California street racing, you’ve visited Brotherhood Raceway at least once and, incidentally, met Big Willie.

I saw my first engine swap at Brotherhood Raceway. Transplants were few then as were the number of outlets to actually bear witness to one. Magazines would take another year to reveal this later phenomenon, and the Internet, it had yet to come of age let alone reveal such Honda precedents. The first turbocharged B series—Brotherhood Raceway must also be credited for that—at least for me. Owning a turbocharged Honda during the early 1990s wasn’t something that went unnoticed nor without fuss. To actually see a Honda on the track, front-mount intercooler and all—it was a rare sight. Although we frequented other sanctioning tracks when we could, there was no beating the sights and sounds that emanated from Brotherhood’s late-night, run-what-you-brung-style atmosphere. And its rudimentary “tech inspections,” they remain second to none.

Brotherhood Raceway is more than 15 years long gone, but street racing, it’s back—seemingly stronger than ever. But we know better now. The damage caused by just one street race gone wrong seems to make any industry triumph markedly less important. The correlation between the uprising in Southern California street racing and the number of tracks that’ve been shut down is no coincidence, never mind the fact that its penalties are at an all-time high. The question is: Will this uprising do for today’s world of Honda performance what it did nearly 20 years ago? Will the absence of legitimate racetracks, which indirectly drives enthusiasts to the streets, lead to anything positive? The answer is likely no. Big Willie could’ve told you as much.

By Aaron Bonk
405 Articles

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