By Mark Salem, NASCAR® Performance Crew Chief
NASCAR® drivers have it easy; they only race in warm weather. Regular folks like you and me don’t have that luxury. We often have to get our vehicles started in very cold temperatures, and we don’t have pit crews to help us out if things go wrong.
That makes it even more important that we keep our vehicles in peak condition as cold weather approaches. By taking a few basic precautions and following these cold weather driving safety tips, you’ll be far less likely to find yourself on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck to arrive.
Keep an eye on your battery. A battery’s cranking power is reduced significantly in freezing weather. Older batteries are notorious for fooling drivers by working just fine in warmer weather, then failing as soon as the weather turns cold. If yours is at least four years old, have it tested by your mechanic. When in doubt, replace it. And just to be safe, carry a set of quality jumper cables at all times in the vehicle. You may also want to consider buying a portable power pack, which can be used in emergency starts.
Give some thought to the kind of motor oil you have in your engine. During winter, you need an oil that can handle low temperatures and quickly flow to critical engine parts on those cold mornings. I’d recommend a fully synthetic oil such as Mobil 1™ for the winter months; it’s designed to flow well even in lower temperatures and is an excellent oil overall.
Filters, coolant and hoses
Make sure your three main filters – oil, gas and air – are in good condition. Check your coolant level and the thermostat, as these elements ensure that your engine warms up properly. Coolant should be changed every two years; extended-life coolants last about five years. Also, be sure to test your heater and defroster, because you can’t drive if you can’t see through your windshield. Finally, check for leaking or soft hoses and have them replaced if need be.
Remember, air contracts in cold weather, and the air in your tires is no exception. Your tire pressure will go down as the weather cools, so make sure your tires are inflated properly. Too little pressure will increase wear as well as your fuel consumption; too much pressure can reduce traction, especially in icy conditions. The proper air pressure listings are often found on the side of the driver’s door or in the glove box. (Don’t just look at the psi rating listed on the tire itself; that is the maximum psi, not necessarily the recommended pressure.) Make sure you also inspect your treads and replace any tires that are looking worn.
When starting a vehicle in cold weather, be sure to allow the engine to idle for a few seconds before driving off. Why? Because doing so will ensure proper oil flow and lubrication. That said, don’t allow the engine to idle for a prolonged period after startup in cold weather. All this does is waste fuel. It doesn’t do anything to warm drivetrain components. After starting your car and allowing it to idle for a short time, just drive easily for several miles to ensure proper vehicle warm-up.
Icy windows and locks
Make sure you keep an ice scraper in your car, and check your windshield wipers and defrosters (front and rear) to verify they’re working properly. Deicers for door locks are also useful, but heated keys are a bit better when locks are frozen.
Stock the trunk
It’s always smart to be prepared, so make sure you keep a few useful items in your trunk – a small shovel for digging out of snow is a good start. I also recommend keeping a bag of sand in the trunk. It gives added traction with its weight, but you also can sprinkle it on snow or ice to improve your traction. Finally, throw an extra blanket, hat and gloves in the trunk, just in case.
Winter’s coming, so be your own pit crew chief and make sure your car is ready for driving in cold weather. If you follow these simple steps, you’ll have a much better season out on the road.