BRIDGEPORT, Conn.-His ``twilight years?'' Not on your life! Most nights when he goes to bed, Tom Mihalov puts a pad of paper and pencil on the night stand next to him. Two or three times a night he'll jot down thoughts that come to him either while awake or dreaming.
Some of his best ideas come from late-night musings, Mr. Mihalov said.
``You've got to keep your body-and especially your mind-agile,'' said the energetic 80-year-old owner of Major Custom Tire Co., who does both.
His Bridgeport retreading operation has, over the years, endured more than its share of fire, hurricanes and other setbacks.
Now, in what should be a time for relaxation, travel, and just plain enjoyment of life-what some innocuously call those ``twilight years''-Mr. Mihalov is still dreaming. Still pushing his tires.
The company's brand-Pro Ruff Trak-says a lot about its founder, no stranger to adversity.
Right up front, he admitted that after two years under bankruptcy court jurisdiction, Major Tire is emerging from Chapter 11.
``My daughter, Donna (the firm's general manager), is very capable. But one of the biggest reasons I'm hanging on is nobody can run an undercapitalized business. Right
now, we're showing the court we're viable, and we're definitely going to make it.''
It seems this octogenarian has often ``played catch-up,'' as he puts it. One of 12 children, he was forced to quit school and go to work when his dad died. ``Don't tell anyone, but my sixth-grade education didn't go too far,'' he whispered. ``But I had the imagination.''
Armed with that and a robust dose of initiative, Mr. Mihalov decided to try retreading. In 1946, he sold his '41 Oldsmobile for $575, bought a couple of tire molds and started Major Tire out of a three-car garage. A year later, the firm also began making racing tires via molds Mr. Mihalov designed with a friend's help.
From 1948 to 1968 Major Tire produced up to 2,000 Ruff Trak retreaded racing tires weekly for go-carts, midgets, stock cars. Mr. Mihalov would work in the plant all day, then six nights a week visit race tracks ``to make sure my tires didn't fall apart. I crossed my fingers, toes, everything.''
Along the way, the business burned down and was rebuilt in 1950, and survived run-ins in 1955, 1960 and 1979 with hurricanes Carol, Donna and David, respectively-all, coincidentally, the names of Mr. Mihalov's children.
His son, David, is now in charge of Major Tire's racing division.
Since 1969, Major has made its own rubber compounds: hybrids of racing formulations and special polymers made to withstand high speeds, yet softer for better traction, plus a ``secret'' ingredient known to some savvy retreaders-walnut shells to aid traction.
Ruff Traks cover a complete all-season line. ``You put them on in summer-they're fantastic in the rain,'' Mr. Mihalov said. But it is his snow tires that really get him talking excitedly.
``In rain, the holes in the rubber dissipate the balance of water between the tire and road. In snow, you gain traction without need of a big lug because of the rough-pore, softer texture of the rubber.''
Despite that ``limited education'' he mentioned, Mr. Mihalov acknowledged he's proud of what he has done. ``The Lord gave me the strength. I needed a partner, and that was him.''