Nine network flagship A Current Affair has been forced into an embarrassing backdown over its public pleas to “track down” an alleged hoon driver it already knew the identity of, claiming it wanted to give the driver a chance to “explain” himself.

As Crikey reported yesterday, on Tuesday night ACA host Tracy Grimshaw asked Australia for help to track down “Crazy Carlo”, even though they were aware of his real identity and the real reason behind the controversial “drifting” clip — Carlo was auditioning for Top Gear. Nine had used two-year-old YouTube footage lifted from a Top Gear audition tape to kick along its dangerous driving crusade.

As 1 million viewers huddled around ACA last night for the follow up story, reporter Tom Steinfort, under the headline “Hunt for Carlo”, claimed that the network had “withheld” Carlo Arena’s identity because he wanted him to “explain why he was behaving this way”.

But Crikey understands that ACA left a message on Arena’s voicemail claiming it wanted to get his side of the story — at 6.35pm on Tuesday, as the episode airing the two year old footage of him went to air.

“Now we thought it would have been unfair to splash the drivers’ full name and face across the country without first giving him the chance to explain why he was behaving this way on a public road. With that in mind we withheld a portion of the video in which he does indeed name himself, and claims he wants to be a stunt driver on SBS’ local version of Top Gear,” Steinfort explained mysteriously.

But if Nine really wanted viewers to find him, wouldn’t it have been helpful to tell viewers his name?

Just to be clear on this, this is what Steinfort said in the original story:

“But first we have to find him, and that’s where you come in. We believe his name is Carlo, Crazy Carlo”.

And then, this:

“So what do we know about this mad man? We know his registration plate.

“And the one thing we know for certain is that we can’t afford to have this dangerous driver anywhere near our roads.”

Even the Police were stumped.

“Police are asking for everyone’s help to catch this clown.”

Grimshaw ended the report with this:

“Well if you know this “Carlo” from Sydney and his Nissan, please call or email us and we’ll do our best to track him down for tomorrow night’s program”.

Not only did Nine know him, but they also had his mobile.

Steinfort made no mention of Channel 9’s heavily promoted acquisition of the rights to the Australian version of the show, referring instead to the old “SBS” program, which hasn’t aired for months.

As part of their original story, Nine also consulted Ian Luff, a motoring expert it invited into ACA headquarters to sink the knife in.

Crikey contacted Luff yesterday, who repeatedly refused to deny he had seen the full unedited YouTube clip that revealed Arena’s identity and the Top Gear link. But here the story gets even murkier. Arena told Crikey through his spokesperson that he had spoken to Luff at a wake for Sydney’s Oran Park raceway last Monday.

Arena also received a certificate of excellence from Luff after he attended one of his driver motivation courses. Oran Park was a key legal site for the controversial “drifting” depicted in Arena’s audition, before it was closed and earmarked for sale for a new housing development late last year.

The story has received major traction. Today Tonight, also boasting a million viewers, led with the video last night, linking the real reason behind the clip — the Top Gear audition tape — to the potential for more trouble on the roads.

They may have a point. As Arena has pointed out, the production company behind Top Gear, Freehand, explicitly encouraged drivers on its website to strut their stuff for the cameras under the promise of anonymity. The real identity of the mysterious Stig is never revealed on the show.

But what about Nine’s promised “police investigation”? Is there any prospect of a two-year-old YouTube audition tape being used as evidence to throw Arena “behind bars”?

Last night NSW Police Acting Superintendent Dave Evans told ACA viewers that the plod was launching an investigation into Arena and, amid prodding from Steinfort, said that he should be locked up.

“We’ll certainly be knocking on his door,” Evans said. “Activity like that on NSW roads. That’s where he should be: behind bars”.

Crikey contacted Evans this morning who clarified his comments, claiming that “…video vision alone is not enough to charge the driver.”

And Evans confirmed that under NSW law, the statute of limitations on “drive manner dangerous”  and “hoon legislation” is six months, contradicting last night’s assertions from both Steinfort and himself that Arena and his film crew were “facing charges”.