An old adage says, “Any publicity is good publicity.”
But for Taxbrain.com — and Altamont Motorsports Park — that may not be the case.
Both groups are finding themselves in a widening spotlight after video clips of a staged car theft — set up by Taxbrain.com with select race officials’ knowledge as a promotion for the company — hit newscasts nationwide and, inevitably, the Internet.
Media outlets from ESPN to CNN have broadcast the clip, treating the incident as if it was real.
But rather than bask in their newfound fame, Altamont officials are distancing themselves from the incident, saying it should never have happened.
Before Sunday’s main event, local racecar driver Justin Philpott— who later said he had no idea what was about to happen — was called onto the track to receive a “special award.” The 16-year-old Tracy High junior drove his Taxbrain.com-sponsored No. 05 Western Late Model Chevrolet onto the track, did a few laps, and parked in victory lane in front of the grandstand.
He was presented with a trophy, and while he posed with a half-dozen bikini-clad young women for a photo, an unidentified man in a sleeveless T-shirt hopped into his car and drove away while a befuddled track announcer called for security.
Track security — who also had no idea the theft was staged and the “thief” was an actor — immediately sprung into action. They blocked the car’s path with tow trucks, pulled the thief from the vehicle, and violently wrestled him to the dirt on the track’s infield — all in full view of video cameras in the stands and a camera crew on the infield.
“The guy’s arms were bleeding all over,” Philpott said Monday. “No one knew what was going on.”
A second individual, after appearing to film the original thief’s joyride with a handheld camera, then tried to steal a tow truck in the confusion. Track workers wasted no time in pulling him from the vehicle and wrestling him to the ground.
Track security restrained both men with zip-tie handcuffs and led them away. After the commotion, the afternoon’s races continued.
According to Philpott, the whole episode was intended to be an advertisement for Taxbrain.com.
A spokeswoman for Altamont parent company Riverside Motorsports Park was quick to distance the organization from the incident. She said only a select few on hand Sunday — including Altamont General Manager Kenny Shepherd — had any prior knowledge of the incident.
“It’s not something that RMP as a parent company wants to participate in,” the spokeswoman said. “It did not happen with the knowledge of the corporate office.”
“Kenny Shepherd did know about it and helped orchestrate the surprise at the request of Philpott Racing and its sponsor,” she added. “Beyond that we have no comment.”
Shepherd declined to comment, saying “an investigation” was under way.
Starting Monday, the video was sent to various media outlets by an unknown party. It was broadcast on CBS-13 earlier in the week, and has since been seen on both CNN and ESPN’s SportsCenter, who broadcast the incident as if it was real. A full video of the incident has also been posted on www.youtube.com.
So far, no criminal charges have been filed. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department — the law enforcement agency who overse
es Altamont — said they did not respond to the track on Sunday.
• To reach Sports Editor Christopher H. Roberts, call 830-4267 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.