Washington: US President Donald Trump on Monday criticised NASCAR'S ban of the Confederate flag from its events and assailed Black driver Bubba Wallace's response to a noose found in his garage, an incident the Republican president referred to as a "hoax."
Trump's comments, sent in a tweet, were his latest in a series of inflammatory statements related to race, which has become a top political issue ahead of the November 3 election amid nationwide protests about civil rights and racial inequality.
NASCAR has said its investigation did not determine who put the noose in Wallace's garage and the FBI found that it was placed there in 2019, before Wallace was assigned to use the stall. Investigators concluded that no federal crime was committed.
After the noose discovery, Wallace, the only Black driver competing in the Cup Series, drew an outpouring of support from fellow drivers, who pushed him and his car to the start of the June 22 race at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway.
"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? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!" Trump tweeted on Monday.
NASCAR said on Monday it "continues to stand tall with Bubba, our competitors and everyone who makes our sport welcoming and inclusive for all racing fans.”
Last month the organisation banned the Confederate flag from its race tracks and facilities as the country grappled with the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody, sparking protests worldwide.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Trump was not taking a position either way on NASCAR's decision about the flag.
The president, who has long courted NASCAR fans and whose campaign is sponsoring a NASCAR team, has stoked racial divisions as part of his re-election campaign, criticising the desecration and removal of statues of Confederate and other former US leaders to energise his political base.
McEnany defended Trump's call for an apology from Wallace.
"The FBI ... has concluded that this was not a hate crime and he believes it would go a long way if Bubba came out and acknowledged this as well," she told reporters at the White House.
Wallace, a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter who had long pushed for banning the Confederate flag, has not backed away from the issue, saying whether the noose was directed at him or someone else, it was still a symbol of hate linked to lynching and America’s history of slavery.
On Twitter, Wallace posted a message to young fans urging them to answer hate with love: "Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it's HATE from the POTUS," he wrote, using an abbreviation for president of the United States.
NASCAR conducted its own investigation, releasing a photograph of the noose, but was unable to determine who was behind it. It said the noose was used as a garage door pull-down.
As for Trump's comments on NASCAR's ratings, Erik Arneson, vice-president of media relations for FOX Sports, said that despite an unusual schedule prompted by the coronavirus, viewership was up 8 per cent this year against equivalent races in 2019 according to Nielsen Media Research.