Hall Of Famer Swayne Pritchett Was A NASCAR Pioneer

Swayne Pritchett (left), seen here with mechanic Jack Edwards, was true racing pioneer. Photo courtesy the Pritchett family

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Feature 8/5/11

Racing historian Mike Bell is working on a book on all the different race tracks in Georgia.  One section of the book, he says, will honor all the drivers who lost their lives while competing in the state.

It’s hard to say how many of those there were, to be honest.  Between races on obscure, dusty bullrings and events held prior to World War I, there are huge gaps in what we know about the happenings on the various race courses in the Peach State.

Sometimes fate will bring you a story on one of the folks who, with the exception of a few relatives, might go largely unremembered.

Such might well have been the case for Swayne Pritchett, a young man who loved racing and was on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest names in a newly founded racing sanctioning body called NASCAR back in 1948.

Born in 1922, Pritchett developed an early love for speed and for automobiles.  Early on, he became involved in the moonshine business in and around his hometown of Baldwin, Georgia, which is located in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills, on the boarder of Banks County and Habersham County north of Atlanta.

Pritchett was also a good businessman.  He would use the money he made in the whisky business to move into more legitimate forms of trade, namely the used car business.  When World War II drew to a close, Pritchett became more involved with used cars.

A rare shot of Swayne Pritchett racing at his hometown track, Habersham Speedway. Photo from a 1948 edition of The Northeast Georgian newspaper.

He also became involved with racing.  Along with his best friend, Georgia Racing Hall of Famer Tommie Irvin, Pritchett began an assault on the race tracks around north Georgia, competing at Atlanta’s famed Lakewood Speedway, Bob Flock’s New Atlanta Speedway and his hometown racetrack, the Habersham Speedway.  Pritchett’s son, Harold, can remember his grandfather taking him to see his father compete at Habersham, which was located just north of the small town of Mt. Airy.

Pritchett’s car owner at the time, Pee Wee Dooley, was also the promoter at Habersham County.  Dooley was killed in a freak gas explosion at his home soon after that race.

From that point on, Pritchett owned his own race cars.  Teaming with legendary mechanic Jack Edwards out of Edwards’ Cornelia, Georgia based garage, the duo became fearsome competitors throughout the southeast.

Swayne Pritchett smiles for the camera. Photo courtesy the Pritchett Family

Piloting the number 17 blue and white Ford, Pritchett raced on the sands of Daytona Beach in 1947, and competed in events on Bill France’s pre-NASCAR circuit that season.  He would wind up 17th overall in the final points standings.

The next year, Bill France, Sr. worked with several of his contemporaries to form the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, now better known as NASCAR.

Pritchett and his friend Tommie Irvin obtained their licenses to drive on France’s new circuit on the same day.  Pritchett was the 23rd driver to ever obtain a license for the racing sanctioning body.

France saw the potential the young Georgia driver had.  He would boast on Pritchett in pre-race publicity, often using his name in press releases to newspapers across the southeast.

Swayne Pritchett (17) avoids a sliding Tommy Moon (right) coming off the north turn at Daytona Beach. Photo courtesy Harold Pritchett

And Pritchett did not disappoint.  In the first NASCAR event ever held, he would finish fifth at Daytona Beach.  He would follow that with a third at Augusta and a fourth at North Wilkesboro.

As the inaugural NASCAR season hit mid-may, Pritchett would find himself in a solid sixth place position in the NASCAR points rankings, and had established himself as a tough contender for wins and for the first NASCAR title.

Following the May 9 event at Wadesboro, NC, Pritchett and Edwards returned home to Baldwin to prepare their Ford for the next event, which was slated for May 16 at Richmond, VA.

It’s not entirely clear why Pritchett chose not to make the trip to Richmond.  Some have said bad weather made him decide to stay close to home.  A friend of Bill France, Gene Hollis, owned a little track just south of Baldwin in Jefferson, Georgia, called the Jackson County Speedway.  France had been to the track several times, and it seemed likely that NASCAR would end up there if not this season, then perhaps in 1949.

Pritchett decided against the trip to Richmond and instead, he and Tommie Irvin traveled just down the road to race for Hollis on May 16, 1948.

Swayne Pritchett leads the pack at Jackson County Speedway on May 16, 1948. Photo courtesy Harold and C.L. Pritchett

When word that Pritchett would be competing at the high banked dirt oval spread, the fans poured into Jefferson to see their hometown hero compete.

And he did not disappoint.

To say Pritchett was the class of the field would be a gross understatement.  He led in time trials.  He won his heat race.  He dominated the trophy dash.  It was absolutely his day.

Pictures from that day show a packed house watching as Pritchett led the field around on the pace laps.  One arm is extending out of the car as he indicates to the field behind him that there is one lap before the race begins.  You can almost sense the fans on the edges of their seats as they wait to see if Pritchett could put top off the day with a win.

Again, Pritchett didn’t disappoint.  His Ford sailed into the lead, and would stay out front for the entirely of the feature.  The fans were at a fever pitch as Pritchett sailed his car off of the banking of the fourth turn and down to the checkered flag to win.

Moments later, however, those cheers turned to cries of terror as disaster struck the dusty half mile.

We may never know exactly what transpired in the seconds following Pritchett’s victory.  All we really can say for sure is that, after taking the checkered flag, Pritchett’s Ford struck the slower moving racer of Truett Black in the first turn.

Pritchett’s car was sent tumbling end-over-end.  The impact had apparently snapped the seat belt support in the number 17 Ford, and as the car flipped over, Pritchett was thrown from the vehicle.  He landed hard on the track’s surface.

Tommie Irvin had taken off running from the pits the moment he saw the impact.  He proudly called Pritchett his best friend, and was the first to reach the scene.  He was amazed to find Pritchett not only alive, but still conscious.  Despite Irvin’s attempt to get him to lie still, Pritchett insisted on getting up under his own power.

Reluctantly, Pritchett went via ambulance to an area hospital to be checked out.  Harold Pritchett said years later, he would talk to a man who rode in the back of the ambulance with his father.  The man told Harold that Swayne asked several times where he had finished in the race, and that he was able to identify himself by saying his name.  But as the ambulance approached the hospital, a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth.

A crowd gathered outside the hospital in nearby Commerce, Georgia.  Soon, they were given the terrible news.  Swayne Pritchett had died of internal injuries.

Pritchett waves to the crowd as he comes to take the checkered flag in his final race, May 16, 1948. Moments later, he was injured in a crash, and would later pass away. Photo courtesy the Pritchett family

“A lot of people told us that was the last race they ever went to,” Harold Pritchett said.

Pritchett was buried at the Leatherwood Baptist Church cemetery in Banks County. He had turned 26 years old one month earlier.

For many years, that gravestone in rural Georgia was the only marker of a man that was a true racing pioneer, and who made the ultimate sacrifice for a sport that so many millions of people enjoy for many reasons.

But not anymore.  Now, just 63 years after he won his final race, Swayne Pritchett is about to be enshrined into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.  On the night of Oct. 21, members of his family and admirers of the sport will gather in Dawsonville, Georgia to take part in the 2011 induction ceremony that will see Pritchett become a member of the Hall.

He will be in good company.  He joins many of the men that he competed against, including Red Byron, the Flock Brothers, Gober Sosebee and many more.

But maybe most telling is that he’ll join his best friend, 2009 inductee Tommie Irvin, as a member of that elite group.  For the first time since that last race, they’ll share the same piece of racing real estate.

There could be no more fitting a place for someone who paid the ultimate price for the sport he loved so much.

Brandon Reed is the editor and publisher of Georgia Racing History.com.

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