Every early January, it seems like all Canberrans heave a sigh and say, “It’s that time of year again.” Engines deafen Braddon’s cafe conversations and the heat already beating off the streets becomes hazier, smokier. It means busy hotels in what should be a quiet season and advice to “avoid EPIC”. Ever since I moved to Canberra, with one sentence I’ve heard people defend it and lament it: “It’s not what it used to be.”
I’ve always wanted to attend Summernats simply to see what the fuss is about. What is so attractive about it that it draws people across Australia to Canberra on what is often one of the warmest weekends of the year? Is the tourism boost worth the event’s dubious reputation – and is its reputation even warranted?
I’ve procured a ticket online and when I arrive on the sweltering afternoon, there’s no line to get in. I hand my ticket over and get a lime green wristband which clearly marks that I’m only there for the Friday session and that’s it. Through the gates, the first challenge: crossing Tuff St. Cars are just cruising and cruising, some occasionally – spontaneously – shooting forward a few metres, making it only safe to cross when there’s quite a big distance between cars.
My first experience is a tame one, heading across Main Street and into the judging pavilion. My phone camera gets a workout before we even step inside.
Inside, there’s a barrier around the entire pavilion and people are leaning up against it, admiring the cars being judged. Even with just a few cars slowly on the move it’s very, very loud. The cars go up a small ramp so they can be judged all over and for some cars which have been lowered – and I mean really lowered – it’s a close call to not scrape off paint or do them damage. In half an hour I see cars modified with hydraulics, some amazing paintwork and one car which has all the judges engaged with tiny torches looking at every single detail. This car takes the judges five times as long to finish judging as all the others we see and later it’s confirmed it does very well.
Hydraulics! This car appears in a video later in this post…
From we walk through the exhibitors pavilion where there’s plenty of things on display to help you modify your car – anything you could think of (and plenty of things I have no idea about).
Outside, we walk up Main St. Crossing the road again is an adventure and my friend – a Summernats veteran – stresses the key to an enjoyable and safe Summernats is being situationally aware at all times; consciously knowing what’s going on around you and being prepared to move if you need. Every second stall seems to either be one with fried food – I enjoy two dagwood dogs during the day! – or with alcoholic slushies (bourbon, rum, tequila, and vodka fire engine). A bar with undercover shade is further up with security inside. There’s a range of mid-strength beers on offer, a cider, and the most expensive beer – at $8 – and the only full-strength is a can of VB. It’s the most popular. Outside, I have the first of a few experiences where a car goes past so loud that it feels like my eardrum is shuddering.
One of the ‘highlights’ of Summernats is the burnout track. We’re there for over an hour in the stands with the sun scorching skin all around us. Without my friend explaining the purpose of the burnout competition to me, I’d have no idea what I’m watching. We’re upwind so we’re saved from the constant billowing smoke but not from the flecks of rubber. Within minutes I’m coated in the black powder that mercilessly spreads as soon as I try to rub it off.
From what I can gather, the whole purpose is to pop as many tyres, create as much smoke, and spin the car around in a quite small area and try not to hurt anyone. It’s all at once senseless, entertaining, polluting and concerning. I watch talented drivers who spin their cars so hard and fast and blow tyres and create so much smoke that I then can’t even see what they’re doing to assess if it’s any good. I watch other drivers barely create any smoke and drive almost into a wall before 10 seconds are up, to jeers of the crowd.
For something where I still have no idea what it’s actually supposed to achieve, it draws an enormous crowd.
At the end of the qualifying round we depart to the Show n’ Shine field but many of the cars have departed as it’s about to transform into the arena for the night’s entertainment with Seth Sentry. In addition to a few remaining cars there’s a V8 simulation (not worth it), a Slingshot and helicopter rides.
This car gets in trouble in a vehicle you’re about to see…
I’ve had a real assault on the senses by this point – the sun has sunk so low it feels like it’s glaring at eye-level, and combined with the fumes and smoke means I’ve got tears streaming down my face – even in the middle of the field! After a rest we head back to Tuff St where there is a lot of action. This is probably the most entertaining part of the day for me. The cars are interesting, and it’s great to see many of them in action. Directly across from us are a group of blokes who help make it even more interesting by asking cars to spin their wheels right in front of them. Given how close they are to the road, I’m also terrified that tyres are going to run over feet (and so surprised this doesn’t happen). This is also the only point that I see any, uh, exposure – of two vehicles, one is particularly devoted to this (but I see no competitions!) (this does not add to the entertainment factor for me!).
And that’s my experience at Summernats. The ticket is valid for the rest of the evening and there’s entertainment to be seen – as well as plenty more cars, and the judging pavilion is about to reveal the best cars – but five hours of heat, noise and fumes exhausts (ha, ha) me.
Does Summernats warrant its reputation? Yes and no. It’s loud and a lot to me seems senseless and plenty about it is crude. But I also saw so many families – so many very young children – having a truly great time. I saw how passionate people are about their vehicles and the money that’s gone into some of the cars and the effort that it takes to become someone who understands their vehicle’s every join and exactly how to make it do what you want. I saw a lot of security and spent a lot of time watching them, particularly on Tuff St, and their approach looked to me to be fair – having a chat to people when their behaviour made things a little unsafe, pushing crowds back a little bit, but largely being very watchful and quite simply very present. It’s also no where near as big as I expected it to be.
It’s unlike anything I’ve ever been to in Canberra, ever. It brings something totally different to our city. While I know I’ll never totally get it – and some things I certainly question – I can see what the fuss is about.