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Unser furious after being cited in snowmobiling incident

January 10, 1997

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Unser says the government shouldn’t be prosecuting him for getting lost during a blizzard while on a near-fatal snowmobile trek that might _ or might not _ have encroached on federally protected wilderness.

``I just don’t believe this is even happening,″ Unser said Thursday after receiving a ticket Wednesday in Albuquerque for violating the Wilderness Act.

``They told me if I hadn’t been Bobby Unser, a celebrity, this whole thing would have been passed over and nothing would have happened. They claim they’re getting pressure from Washington, from the Sierra Club, to write me a ticket.″

Unser said he’s unsure but he might have strayed a quarter-mile or half-mile into the Southern San Juan Wilderness on Dec. 20 while snowmobiling with a friend, Robert Gayton. He said the Forest Service also wasn’t sure.

``They still don’t know; they’re assuming,″ he said by phone from Phoenix, where he was making a personal appearance at a boat show Thursday.

But even if he did cross an invisible line in the snow, he said, the Forest Service shouldn’t be prosecuting someone for getting lost in a blizzard. He and Gayton, 36, were stuck in the snow for two days after the snowmobile broke down.

``There’s no signs up there that say this is a wilderness. We didn’t see any signs, but even if there were 100 signs, how do you see them in a blizzard? If I could see in a blizzard, I wouldn’t be lost, and if I weren’t lost, I wouldn’t have nearly died.″

The 63-year-old former auto racing star, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, 1975 and 1981, said he is still suffering the physical effects of the ordeal, particularly a sore throat.

``People shouldn’t be prosecuted for something they have no control over. When I went out that day, the sun was shining and it was beautiful. So I certainly didn’t ask in any knowing way to try to kill myself and my friend,″ he said. He added that snowmobiling is legal at the point where the outing began.

``It’s one thing if you do something by intent, but what if it’s God’s intent and I had nothing to do with it? I didn’t want to go into their wilderness. I wanted to be the heck out of there.″

``I’m ashamed I got lost,″ Unser said. ``Nobody would take the chance of getting lost up there if they knew ahead of time it was going to happen _ especially a person like myself who’s not known to be completely dumb. I almost died, came very close.″

``I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m an American citizen and a damn good taxpayer, and I don’t deserve to be treated this way by the Forest Service,″ he said.

Unser said he would consult with his congressman, Rep. Steve Schiff, and Sen. Pete Domenici, both R-N.M., about the state of laws governing such emergencies.

``If they don’t have laws to take care of emergencies like this, then I think the Congress should do something about it,″ he said. ``If they have time to harass an innocent person like this, it seems to me they need fewer people ... and more work for the ones that remain.″

He said two Forest Service officials drove from Colorado to Albuquerque on Wednesday to issue the ticket.

Unser said they told him the infraction was less than a misdemeanor. But Forest Service officials in Denver said Thursday that Unser could face up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine if convicted and that a U.S. attorney would prosecute the case, which would be heard by a U.S. magistrate.

``That isn’t what they indicated yesterday at all,″ Unser said.

The Forest Service said Unser was cited for violating the Wilderness Act, which prohibits motorized vehicles like snowmobiles in public wilderness areas. Unser’s snowmobile remains stranded somewhere near the Colorado-New Mexico state line.

Ron Jablonski, public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest, said he didn’t know Gayton’s status in the case.

``I don’t know that Mr. Gayton was involved at all,″ Jablonski said from Colorado Springs, Colo.

Gayton did not immediately return telephone messages left by The Associated Press.

A message also was left seeking comment from the Sierra Club’s national office in Washington, D.C.

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