This story was updated at 8:42 p.m. on Monday, July 6, 2020, with more information.
WASHINGTON — NASCAR's layered relationship with Donald Trump took a sharp turn Monday when the U.S. President took to Twitter and sideswiped the stock car racing organization for banning the Confederate flag and wrongly accused the sport's only full-time Black driver of perpetrating "a hoax" when a crew member found a noose in the team garage stall.
Trump suggested Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace should apologize after NASCAR officials and drivers rallied around him after the noose was found in his assigned stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama last month. Federal authorities investigated and determined the noose had been hanging since October and was not a hate crime. NASCAR and the FBI have exclusively referred to the rope — which was used to pull the garage door closed — as a noose.
It was the only garage pull out of 1,684 stalls at 29 inspected NASCAR tracks to be fashioned as a noose.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps has bristled at suggestions the noose was a hoax. Wallace was shown a photograph of the noose, never personally saw it, and was told by NASCAR officials he was the victim of a hate crime.
"Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?" Trump tweeted. "That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!"
The tweet came after Trump used a pair of Independence Day speeches to dig deeper into America's divisions by accusing protesters who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a "merciless campaign to wipe out our history." The remarks served as a direct appeal to the Republican president's political base, including many disaffected white voters, with less than four months to go before Election Day.
Wallace responded on Twitter with a note to "the next generation and little ones following my foot steps" in which he urged people to use their platform and not be detracted by "hate being thrown at you."
"Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate," Wallace wrote. "Even when it's HATE from the POTUS .. Love wins."
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended the president's decision to wade into the Wallace case, likening it to actor Jussie Smollett's claims he was a victim of a hate crime. McEnany criticized the press in a White House briefing, calling Trump's tweet a "complete indictment of the media's rush to judgement."
McEnany declined to explain why the president thought Wallace should have to apologize given he didn't report the noose. McEnany refused to say whether or not the president supports NASCAR's ban on the Confederate flag.
NASCAR did not directly address the Trump tweet in a Monday statement.
"We are proud to have Bubba Wallace in the NASCAR family and we commend his courage and leadership," NASCAR said in a released statement. "NASCAR continues to stand tall with Bubba, our competitors and everyone who makes our sport welcoming and inclusive for all racing fans."
Andrew Murstein, co-owner of the Richard Petty Motorsports team that fields Wallace's car, called Trump's tweet "a late, misinformed, and factually incorrect statement." He also said it was unwarranted and cited the photo NASCAR released of the noose.
"A picture is worth a thousand words," Murstein said in a released statement. "Bubba has reacted in a truthful, professional, level headed manner. The NASCAR community and those in the know all stand by him."
Wallace led the push for NASCAR to ban Confederate symbols at tracks. Two weeks later, the noose was found at the first race, only the second fans were allowed to attend since racing resumed in mid-May after a two-month shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. On the same day, a plane pulling a banner of the Confederate flag that read "Defund NASCAR" was circling the track, and protesters outside the speedway displayed their flags.
Two NASCAR drivers came to Wallace's defense Monday. Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, currently sidelined with the coronavirus, posted an image of Wallace's No. 43 that had been used by drivers in an earlier #IStandWithBubba campaign. Rookie Tyler Reddick tweeted but later deleted a reply to Trump that read: "We don't need an apology. We did what was right and we will do just fine without your support."
LeBron James and Chelsea Clinton were among those outside of NASCAR who backed Wallace on social media, with the Los Angeles Lakers star stating he stands with Wallace.
NASCAR's complex relationship with Trump dates to early in his 2016 presidential campaign, when former NASCAR chairman Brian France brought a contingent of drivers to a rally in Georgia.
France later sent a memo to NASCAR employees stating his political beliefs were his own and he was not speaking on behalf of the organization. France was replaced as chairman after his arrest for driving while impaired in 2018.
Other members of the France family welcomed Trump to Daytona International Speedway in February for the Daytona 500, which annually opens the Cup Series schedule. Many drivers and owners mingled with Trump and posted photos with the president.
Wallace, who was born in Alabama and grew up in North Carolina, has taken an active role in the push for racial equality. He has worn a shirt saying "I Can't Breathe," and raced with a Black Lives Matter paint scheme at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.
Ramsey Poston, a former NASCAR consultant and now head of crisis management firm Tuckahoe Stategies, said Trump's tweet is harmful to NASCAR's push for inclusion. Wallace is one of just a handful of nonwhite drivers; Daniel Suarez is Mexican and Aric Almirola is of Cuban descent. Kyle Larson, whose mother is Japanese-American, was fired in April for using a racial slur.
"The brewing cultural war within NASCAR for equality has just erupted, and the sport's efforts to separate from its past just got tougher," Poston said. "The president's comments are essentially a rallying call for people who support the Confederate flag to challenge the sport's recent flag ban and create chaos."
While Trump claimed NASCAR's ratings are down, they are actually up. Michael Mulvihill, executive vice president at Fox Sports, tweeted that Fox viewership is up 8% since racing resumed. NBC took over the broadcast rights this past weekend and said its ratings for Sunday's race were up 46% from last year's event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
North Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, pushed back against Trump's NASCAR tweet on Fox News Radio, saying NASCAR is trying to grow the sport by removing divisive symbols.
Said Graham: "I don't think Bubba Wallace has anything to apologize for."