LOS ANGELES -- Bubba Wallace made an emotional return to NASCAR racing on Monday as justice officials began probing the discovery of a noose placed in the trailblazing black driver's team garage.
Wallace, 26, appeared to be in tears at the start of the weather-delayed Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama as his fellow drivers hugged him in turn before the race.
The scenes came a day after NASCAR revealed that a noose had been found in Wallace's garage stall at the track, triggering a possible hate crime investigation by federal authorities.
Wallace is the only black driver who races full-time in NASCAR's top Cup series and recently successfully called for the removal of the Confederate flag at the circuit's events.
Monday's rescheduled race turned into a mass show of support as drivers closed ranks around Wallace.
Wallace was visibly moved beforehand as his fellow drivers rallied behind him at the starting line.
Multiple drivers and crew then joined forces to push Wallace's Richard Petty No.43 car to the front of the grid. Wallace exited the car and appeared to be in tears as driver after driver hugged him.
Wallace, who ran out of fuel near the end of the race before finishing 14th, gave a post-race interview to television without wearing a face mask.
"The sport is changing," Wallace said. "Sorry I'm not wearing my mask...but that deal yesterday, I wanted to show whoever it was that you're not going to take away my smile. I'm going to keep on going.
"The stars didn't completely align for me today, but all in all, we won today."
- 'Filthy act' -
Among the wellwishers at the circuit on Monday was team owner Richard Petty, the NASCAR legend known simply as The King.
The 82-year-old has not attended a race since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted but travelled to Talladega to show support.
Petty described the noose in Wallace's garage as a "filthy act (which) serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go to eradicate racial prejudice".
"The sick person who perpetrated this act must be found, exposed and swiftly and immediately expelled from NASCAR," he said. "I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bubba, yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day forward."
NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr meanwhile said it was important the sport supported Wallace.
"I don't worry about our sport," Earnhardt wrote on Twitter. "I have confidence NASCAR's leadership will find who did this and continue pushing us in the right direction.
"I do worry about Bubba. I hope Bubba is feeling loved and supported. Keep sending him that love and support. He needs it now more than ever."
Several NASCAR drivers earlier tweeted messages using the hashtag #IStandWithBubba.
"I can't begin to fathom the pain this action has caused. I stand with you @BubbaWallace," wrote seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
Wallace, who has been outspoken about racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, said on Sunday he was "incredibly saddened" by the "despicable act of racism".
"This will not break me," Wallace said. "I will not give in, nor will I back down."
US justice authorities on Monday said the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division were working to determine if any laws had been violated.
"Regardless of whether federal charges can be brought, this type of action has no place in our society," a statement said.
Meanwhile, other sports stars have sent messages of support to Wallace following the noose's discovery.
NBA star LeBron James described the incident as "sickening".
"Know you don't stand alone!" James wrote. "I'm right here with you as well as every other athlete.
"I just want to continue to say how proud I am of you for continuing to take a stand for change here in America and sports!"
© Agence France-Presse
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