It was 60 years ago this week that the racing world lost a driver that many felt would have been an early NASCAR star.
On May 16, 1948, Swayne Pritchett of Baldwin lost his life due to injuries sustained in a racing accident in Jefferson, GA.
Pritchett was born in 1922, and early on, was fascinated by speed. As many young men of the day were, he was involved in the moonshine business.
Later on, Pritchett would become successful by using his whisky money to buy land, and also to go into the used car business. After World War II, Pritchett became more involved with used cars.
And he became involved in racing.
Swayne’s son Harold says that as best his family can find, Pritchett became involved in racing after the war. Harold recalls seeing his father finish third at the old Habersham County Speedway north of Mt. Airy.
Pee Wee Dooley, who was the promoter at the speedway, owned Pritchett’s ride that day. Dooley died soon after that race in a freak gas explosion at his home.
After that, Pritchett owned his own cars, with legendary mechanic Jack Edwards turning the wrenches.
Driving his blue and white number 17 Ford, Pritchett caught the eye of many race fans and promoters around the south. He raced on Daytona Beach in 1947 and raced on Bill France’s pre-NASCAR circuit in 1947, finishing 17th in points.
In 1948, Pritchett became the 23rd driver to obtain a license for France’s new racing organization, named NASCAR.
Racing out of Edward’s garage in Cornelia, Pritchett prepared to run many of the new NASCAR events. NASCAR raced only modifieds that year, with the strictly stock (later to be known as Sprint Cup) division still a year away from its birth.
Pritchett piloted his Ford to a fifth place finish on the beach and road course in Daytona. He took third at Augusta and fourth at North Wilkesboro. By the early part of May, Pritchett found himself in sixth place in the NASCAR point standings.
His name was also popping up in a lot of NASCAR press releases. Seeing the popularity of the young driver, France would mention him several times in the releases that he sent to newspapers to spread the word of the new sanctioning body. Surely, Pritchett was on his way to being a shining star on the racing scene.
Then came May 16, 1948.
Pritchett was due to race in Martinsville, Va. on that weekend, but a freak snowstorm postponed the event. NASCAR rescheduled the race for Richmond, but, for whatever reason, Pritchett decided instead to run on May 16 at the half mile Jackson County Speedway just outside of Jefferson.
Pritchett was the class of the field that day, winning in the heat race, then in the trophy dash. Pritchett took the green flag from the pole in the feature, and led every lap en route to the victory.
But moments after taking the checkered flag, disaster struck.
For some reason, Pritchett’s car and the lap car of Truett Black collided in the first turn after the end of the race. Pritchett’s car was thrown end over end. The impact apparently caused the seat belt support in Pritchett’s car to break, and he was thrown out of the tumbling car.
Black was taken to an area hospital for care and treatment, and would recover.
Pritchett was still conscious when crew members reached him, and was taken to a hospital in nearby Commerce.
Several people who had accompanied or followed the ambulance waited outside. Soon, a nurse came out to tell them Swayne Pritchett had died of internal injuries.
Pritchett was buried at the Leatherwood Baptist Church cemetery in Banks County. He had turned 26 years old one month earlier.
This year marks the 60-year anniversary of Pritchett’s passing. The speedway where he suffered his fatal injuries is gone. A bypass connecting I-85 and Athens crosses its front and back stretch.
But the memory of Swayne Pritchett continues on to this day. He was a racing pioneer, and an early star of stock car racing. For those who saw him race, or have heard about his talents, his memory lives on today.