The older I get, the faster I used to be.
Tom Laird smiles when he throws that oxymoron into the mix of reflecting on his 41 years of racing history.
At 62, Laird isn't your typical racecar driver. By day, he's the city clerk for Village of Four Seasons. But when the opportunity arises, maybe two or three times a year, he's on the track behind the wheel of his 1974 Ford Pinto.
That's right. A Ford Pinto.
"It takes a lot of pride to drive a Pinto," Laird laughs.
He calls his pride and joy "the almost famous racing Pinto."
Over the years, Laird has raced in more than half a dozen different racecars. It all started with a 1967 Lotus Formula Ford in the early 1970s.
"From when I was a toddler, I watched races and always wanted to drive a sports car," explained Laird, who was raised near Watkins Glen, N.Y.
His next door neighbor was into racing as well, and that helped catapult him onto the racetrack.
He married his wife of 42 years at the age of 21, and with her blessing he bought the Lotus at a repo auction. He became a member of the Sports Car Club of America in the early 1970s, so it seemed a natural progression onto the racetrack at Watkins Glen, one of the most storied sports car racing tracks in the nation and home of the U.S. Grand Prix.
When he wasn't racing in the Northeast Division of the Sports Car Club of America, he was wearing the uniform of a Rochester, N.Y., police officer. He held that job until relocating to the Lake of the Ozarks to become the Four Seasons Village Clerk in 1991.
Laird raced both as an amateur and a professional back in New York, and it was during a professional race that he first raced against Dorsey Schrader, who is well known in the lake area as a former restaurant owner and legendary racecar driver.
Laird competed against Schrader in a handful of races back East, and watching the racer not only inspired him but also taught him some tricks of the trade. He credits Schrader for the modicum of success he has realized.
"Dorsey always talked about the wonders of this place called the Lake of the Ozarks," Laird explained. "I decided that when I retired from the police force we'd move to the lake."
And so he did, but that didn't deter his interest in racing.
He has continued his pursuit more for fun than the money.
"I don't have any sponsors," he explained. "We work on a very small budget."
Page 2 of 2 - There isn't a lot of overhead in keeping a stock Pinto on the track. It runs on regular gasoline and in a recent 315-mile race in Topeka, Kan., the 86-horsepower, blue-striped, white Pinto used about 15 gallons of gas.
But why a Pinto of all cars?
"I was racing in the mid-1980s and was invited to participate in a Ford National Cup Championship," he recalled. "Ford gave me the money and trusted me. I decided to race the much-maligned Pinto because it was something nobody else wanted."
Laird, admittedly a Ford man, says the claims of an unsafe vehicle were overblown. Studies later found that the Pinto was actually as safe, or safer, than other cars in its class. The first thing he did, however, was to remove the suspect gas tank and replace it with a less-flammable fuel cell.
"It's actually fun to have a road-racing Pinto in the Midwest," he said.
When he and his wife Pam roll their car off the trailer at a race, it turns heads. But the stock, 2-liter engine car was loaded for racing from the factory, Laird says. It's a natural for competing with even the big-name brands like Porches and BMWs. He has done nothing to enhance the engine.
"To take a car that most others throw away and turn it into a winner is a lot more fun," Laird smiled. "Race fans and other drivers will look at it and say, 'Oh my God, a Pinto.' I take pride in that."
While the Pinto is his pride and joy today, Laird has raced a Lotus Formula Ford, a Lola 342 Ford, a Lotus T460 Formula Atlantic, a Chevron B22, a Mitsubishi Fire Arrow and a Mitsubishi Starion.
The Pinto is a keeper, he said, because he has hopes that his grandsons ― 14 and 11 ― will carry on the family tradition. The older of the two has shown some interest, but his involvement is several years away.
He recalled his early days of racing when racing was a family affair. His wife and sons were his team, and they pitched a tent among the luxurious motor homes because that was all they could afford.
Laird wants to continue racing as long as his health remains good. "My wife said 'don't stop.' It will make you grow old," Laird said.
When he was a young racer full of vim and vigor, nobody called and asked him to represent them. Today, he's getting calls to be part of an endurance race team, which he does when time allows.
But it's the steadfast Pinto that has a special place in his heart, and his life. Who would have guessed?