Bobby Unser

Race car champion as scofflaw.

Published June 6, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

bobby Unser feels like he has blown a gasket. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner nearly died last December when he was forced to abandon his snowmobile during a flash blizzard in the mountains along the Colorado-New Mexico border. After trekking through deep snow for two days, Unser finally reached shelter -- only to be slapped with a ticket by Forest Service agents. The charge: snowmobiling in a wilderness area. Steadfastly refusing to pay the $75 ticket, Unser faces trial next Wednesday in a Denver courtroom. The offense is punishable by up to six months in jail. So, what's up with all this? Salon asked the racing legend.

You've long been at loggerheads with the Forest Service, especially over the Wilderness Protection Act, and some have suggested you staged your disappearance as a protest.

That's a far cry from the truth. Would a person really try to kill himself to make such a point? Believe it or not, I'm really a smart person. I'm very successful. I have a high IQ. I have never been hit in the head. Would a sane person go up there and do such a suicidal thing? If I wanted to commit suicide, wouldn't I use a gun or take poison or jump out of an airplane without a parachute? Why would I want to go through two days of hell? I just got lost, which is easy to do in a flash blizzard. I damn near died up there.

How did you feel when you received a ticket?

Last January, I went to the Forest Service, thinking that they were going to help me find my snowmobile. So I go to their office, and two Forest Service officers -- a man and a woman -- introduce themselves. We spent a pleasant afternoon looking at three-dimensional maps to determine where I had been. After agreeing on a likely spot, the female agent reaches under the table and pulls out a pre-written ticket. I told them that I wouldn't sign it. I said, "If you want to take me to jail, well then, let's go." The male agent looks me straight in the eye and says: "Bobby, the Sierra Club got a hold of Washington, D.C., and ordered us to give you a ticket if we found your snowmobile in the wilderness. I said, "What the hell are you guys trying to do to me. I walked for 18 hours straight out there." And the agent tells me, "Well, if you weren't a celebrity this wouldn't be happening." Now, this is no way to treat a taxpayer.

You and rock musician Ted Nugent recently testified before a congressional panel investigating the implementation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Should the act be repealed?

I'm not trying to do away with federal wilderness lands. I'm just trying to bring attention to the strong-arm tactics that federal agencies use when left unchecked. You can't let an agency like this run amok. The Forest Service police act like KGB agents. They're also wasting huge amounts of taxpayer dollars. Rumor has it that they've spent over $100,000 chartering helicopters to find my snowmobile in support of their case.

Do you think you'll ever get your snowmobile back?

They've told me to take it out by horse or foot. We're going to file a lawsuit to make them either pay for a new snowmobile or allow me to go in there with another snowmobile and get it. They're in for a big fight. These people better go to a couple of races and learn what a race driver is all about.

By David Wallis

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