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John Batman, no relation, also had a need for speed

John Batman, left, shown with his son, Henry, built and repaired race cars at Batman’s Welding & Machine Shop. He loved to race, too, and drove fast behind the wheel well into his 90s.

Special to the Times

John Batman, left, shown with his son, Henry, built and repaired race cars at Batman’s Welding & Machine Shop. He loved to race, too, and drove fast behind the wheel well into his 90s.

CLEARWATER — The phone woke him up many times in the middle of the night. John Wesley Batman staggered to answer it, fighting off anxious thoughts.

But invariably, no bad news awaited. Only yokels.

"Is the Batman in the Bat Cave?"

"Let me speak to Robin."

"There's an emergency here. We need the Batman!"

The calls were so frequent that his son later had an unlisted phone number.

For the record, the pranksters had it wrong. The name is pronounced Batmun, not Batman. Mr. Batman did, however, share one attribute with the comic strip and movie character: an affinity for fast cars.

He built and drove race cars. He pushed those who drove the cars he built to go faster around the dirt oval tracks that once dotted the state, including several in the Tampa Bay area.

When they smashed into walls, he repaired the cars in his welding shop.

Mr. Batman drove fast into his nineties.

"If he was driving, God, everybody would just close their eyes in the car," said his son, Henry Batman, 63. "Going on road trips with him was scary."

Mr. Batman, part of a vanishing breed of amateur gearheads and daredevils who raced on Florida's beaches and dirt roads before development pushed them out, died Sunday.

He was 95.

As a thin, whiplike youth in Bedford, Ind., Mr. Batman begged to test drive cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They told him he was too young.

Mr. Batman lived and worked around race cars. He courted childhood friend Emily Morrison in 1940 by taking her to the Indianapolis track. They married that year.

After ventures of a few years each — managing an auto parts store, working with his father in Clearwater, opening a gas station — he found his niche in 1955 by opening Batman's Welding and Machine Shop.

Mr. Batman and Emily installed trailer hitches for cars, boats and motor homes. His son worked there, too.

"I quit many times. He fired me many times," Henry said.

While trailer hitches paid the bills, Mr. Batman raced at now-defunct and largely forgotten tracks: Sunshine Speedway in Clearwater; Tri-City in St. Petersburg; Golden Gate, Plant Field and Phillips Field in Tampa; even on Daytona Beach at low tide.

Often, his son was the driver. "He'd say, 'Henry, you're not going fast enough. You need to push the pedal.' "

Back at the shop, the Batmans welded cars together.

"Back in the '50s, '60s, you built everything," the younger Batman said. "You'd get some parts from the junkyard. You'd make this part; you'd take the brake drums off a Buick; you had the rear end that came off a truck. We took springs out of another car. It took a lot of ingenuity and creativity. Now you buy everything."

Mr. Batman retired from his shop in 1976. He took Emily on one-tank car trips. If they passed an auto racetrack, they would drive through the parking lot.

He watched racing on television. With all the local tracks gone except Gibsonton's East Bay Raceway, it's all he had left.

His eyesight failing, Mr. Batman lost his driver's license two years ago.

"It hit him really, really hard," Henry said. But neighbors would occasionally see him behind the wheel. They called Mr. Batman's son, saying they feared he would get in an accident.

Finally, his son disabled the car.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

>>Biography

John Wesley Batman Jr.

Born: Sept. 15, 1914

Died: Sept. 27, 2009

Survivors: wife Emily; daughter Patricia Dodson; son Henry; brother Edward; numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

John Batman, no relation, also had a need for speed 10/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 1, 2009 10:29pm]
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