Washington (AFP) - NASCAR president Steve Phelps said Thursday that the noose found in the garage of Bubba Wallace "was real" and while the series' only black driver wasn't targeted in a hate crime, officials' concern for him was warranted.
Phelps held a conference call with reporters on Thursday to discuss the findings of NASCAR's own investigation into the matter, two days after the FBI concluded the noose fashioned from a garage pull down rope had been in place in the Talladega Speedway garage for months and could not have been aimed at Wallace.
That conclusion sparked suggestions on social media that the entire incident was a hoax, angering Wallace and prompting Phelps to defend NASCAR's reaction.
"Upon learning of and seeing the noose, our initial reaction was to protect our driver," Phelps said. "We're living in a highly charged and emotional time. What we saw was a symbol of hate and was only present in one area of the garage and that was of the 43 car of Bubba Wallace.
"In hindsight, I should have used the word 'alleged' in our statement," added Phelps, who spoke forcefully on Sunday night when the noose was found of the "heinous act."
"As you can see from the photo, the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba," Phelps said.
Neither the FBI investigation nor NASCAR's probe found who tied the noose, but Phelps said their investigation confirmed it was not a normal appearance in a trackside garage.
NASCAR officials asked each track to sweep through their respective garages. Across the 1,684 garage stalls at 29 tracks, NASCAR found only 11 total that had a pull-down rope even tied in a knot. Only one featured a rope tied into a noose -- the garage stall used by Watson last weekend.
Phelps said NASCAR would implement sensitivity and unconscious bias training for all members of the industry along with additional sweeps through garage areas and installation of additional cameras in all garages.
"Our ultimate conclusion for this investigation is to ensure that this never happens again, that no one walks by a noose without recognizing the potential damage it can do," Phelps said.
Wallace has played a key role in recent weeks in prompting NASCAR to finally implement a ban on the Confederate flag at race venues.
Seen as a symbol of slavery and racism by many, the flag has been a staple at NASCAR tracks, particularly in the sport's southern US heartland.
Protesters of the decision flaunted the Confederate flag outside Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday before the race there was postponed because of poor weather.
- 'courage' and 'dignity' -
The weather-delayed race on Monday, however, turned into a mass show of support as drivers closed ranks around Wallace.
He was visibly moved before the start as fellow drivers rallied behind him at the starting line before multiple drivers and crew members joined forces to push his No. 43 car to the front of the grid.
Phelps said he was "proud to see so many stand up for what's right" and he fired back at insinuations that Wallace or his team somehow fabricated the incident.
"Bubba Wallace and the 43 team had nothing to do with this," Phelps said. "Bubba has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity and he stood tall for what he believes in. And we all need to stand with him."