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Unser: Blizzard Sent Him Off Trail Auto Racing Champion Recounts Accidental Foray In Wilderness

A ground blizzard caused by strong winds, not a snowstorm, made champion race car driver Bobby Unser lose his way Dec. 20 while snowmobiling on the border between New Mexico and Colorado, Unser said in a recent interview.

Unser and friend Robert Gayton were stranded in the wilderness after one snowmobile got stuck and the other broke down.

They spent two nights in the elements before making their way to safety.

After recovering from the ordeal, Unser was cited by the U.S. Forest Service for deliberately riding his snowmobile in Colorado’s South San Juan Wilderness Area.

Although rescue workers don’t know what the conditions were the day Unser’s snowmobile broke down, they confirmed that the next day winds were high and visibility was poor.

“We got up on top of this rimrock - not in the wilderness - and the blizzard came up,” Unser said. “We got lost.”

When the Forest Service handed him his citation, he was outraged.

“I didn’t hate the Forest Service before. I thought they were going to help me,” he said. “I don’t like them now. I’m upset. My feelings are hurt.”

That outrage was shared by several congressmen, including Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who wrote a letter of protest to U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.

Unser is hoping the national attention to his case will result in a congressional hearing.

“How can you write somebody a ticket when there’s no doubt I was lost,” he asked. “On the ticket it said mandatory court appearance. That declared War No. 1.”

On the Statement of Probable Cause for the citation, U.S. Forest Service special agent Brenda Schultz wrote that two Forest Service officers had stopped Unser in 1993 near Red Lake Trailhead on snowmobiles.

When they reminded Unser that snowmobiling was illegal in the wilderness area, Unser responded, according to Schultz, “that he was aware where the wilderness was and was not planning on traveling in that area, but if he did nobody would be able to catch him.”

Unser denied ever saying such a thing.

“That’s a thing Bobby Unser would never do,” he said. “I’m a person that hundreds of millions of people know, and that’s not a Bobby Unser type of thing to do.”

Jim Webb, forest supervisor of the Rio Grande National Forest, still is skeptical of Unser’s alibi. He said the search and rescue team was able to follow Unser’s snowmobile tracks all the way to one of the machines.

That was four miles inside the wilderness boundary.

But the search and rescue worker who found the machine, Richard Martin of Manassa, Colo., isn’t so sure of its location now.

The odometer indicated the machine had gone only nine miles, “but where I thought it was, it should have been at 12 (miles),” Martin said Thursday. Most snowmobilers reset their odometer each time they fill their tank, Martin said.

The tracks weren’t that easy to follow because of strong winds blowing snow over them, he said.

“When we was up there, it was a bad blizzard, but that was the next day,” he said. In those conditions, it would be easy to get lost, he said.

When he recovered from his epic adventure, Unser visited Forest Service offices and helped special agent Charlie Burd locate the second machine on a map, which also is inside the wilderness boundary.

Unser will have his day in court. A hearing is scheduled for March 11 in Monte Vista, Colo. He could face up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine if convicted.

Since the Unser case made the national media, fewer snowmobilers are violating the Wilderness Act, according to Webb.

“Citations in the South San Juan are down,” Webb said. “You can fly over it and there are no snowmobile tracks in there. And there has always been snowmobile tracks in there.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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