2012.05.16 Indy 500 time recalls unusual old stories

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

The Indianapolis 500 is fertile ground for interesting and sometimes tragic stories, not all taking place at the racetrack itself. The careers and deaths of drivers Norman Batten and Earl DeVore are prime examples.

Both drivers first participated in the race in 1925. DeVore started the race in 15th spot and drove to a 13th place finish. Batten had a slightly more interesting story.

Not qualifying for a starting spot, Batten was called on to drive in relief of Pete DePaolo, who, although leading the race, was suffering from blistered hands caused by vibrations from the rough track surface.  Batten kept the car in contention, and after DePaolo had a break to rest and get his hands bandaged, the car was turned back over to Pete for the end of the race. 

The average speed for the race-winning duo was over 101 miles per hour, the first time the 100 mph barrier was broken. However, since Batten drove only in the middle portion of the race, he received no credit as a co-winner. That requires a driver to either start or finish the race in the car.

In both 1924 and 1941, two drivers shared the Indy 500 winning car (and credit). A situation like Batten’s also occurred in the first “500” in 1911, when Cyrus Patschke drove in relief mid-race for winner Ray Harroun. Patschke actually was the one who put the car into the lead, but Harroun got all the credit.

In 1926, Batten finally qualified for the race, starting 16th and finishing a rain-shortened event in seventh place. This time, it was DeVore who failed to qualify.

Both drivers made the field in 1927, with DeVore starting 15th and racing all the way to second place. Yet 30th place Norman Batten was the hero of the race.

On lap 24, Batten’s fuel tank split and his car was soon engulfed in flames. Nearing the pit entrance, Batten chose to stay on the track rather than steer the blazing race car onto a pit road full of people and fuel tanks. The brave driver stood up on his seat to get as far away from the fire as possible and steered the car down the front stretch the entire length of the pits. 

After finally passing the exit of pit road, Batten drove the car into an unoccupied area in the infield and bailed out. The courageous Batten suffered relatively minor burns.

Batten scored a career-high finish in a self-owned car in 1928 while DeVore wound up in 18th place. This time, Batten’s car started leaking oil which splattered on his right leg and foot. Rather than give up, he continued on, suffering burns for the second straight year, but ultimately finishing in fifth place. Neither he or DeVore could know at the time it would be their last time at Indianapolis or what fate had in store for them.

After the end of the 1928 racing season, Batten and DeVore decided to take their families on a trip to Europe. It would cost both men their lives.

They booked passage on the S.S. Vestris, which encountered a storm, then began sinking after its ballast shifted. A few crewmen tried to help passengers, but the most cowardly of them grabbed lifeboats and saved themselves, leaving passengers on their own.

Accounts from survivors said that Batten assisted at least a dozen passengers into lifeboats before sharks attacked and killed him. Meanwhile, DeVore helped his wife and son Billy, as well as Batten’s wife Marian, into lifeboats, then began helping other passengers. Like Batten, DeVore was attacked and eaten by the sharks as crewmen in a nearby lifeboat refused pleas to save him.  

Six months later, as the 1929 Indy 500 neared, Marian Batten entered her late husband’s car in the race as a memorial. Qualified and driven by Wes Crawford, it finished in 15th place. 

 Nine years after his father’s death, DeVore’s son Billy qualified for the 1937 Indy 500, finishing in seventh place. He also raced in the next five scheduled 500’s, before missing the 1947 event. He made his final “500” field the following year.

Car owner Pat Clancy entered a six-wheeled car for the 1948 “500,” featuring two rear axles with four wheels. Extra wheels provided more traction in turns, but increased drag on the straightaways, making the six-wheeler slower than conventional cars.

But Billy DeVore took on the strange, balky racer, qualifying in 20th spot and driving to 12th place on race day. DeVore finally retired in the early 1950’s, ending the saga of the Batten and DeVore families at Indianapolis.

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