Car dealerships are putting bollards in place and fixing number plates with tamper-proof screws in preparation for a potentially rough week ahead as Canberra’s annual petrolhead festival comes to town.
Summernats takes over Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC) from 5 to 8 January for its 35th iteration, with more than 40,000 people estimated to come to the capital at what is an otherwise quiet time of year. But with a crowd, there are always those who make trouble.
Canberra Toyota along Melrose Drive in Phillip has been getting ready since Christmas Eve. General manager Amir Hayati has been in the local car-sales game across several dealerships for more than 10 years and says securing the lots is almost a tradition at this time of year.
“Staff are so scared whenever Summernats comes around, especially if they have performance cars,” he says.
It turns out some attendees just about drain their pockets to get here and then with booze and accommodation costs, don’t have the funds for the return journey so they break into a car yard, pinch a number plate, fill up and run.
Canberra’s dealership staff have responded by securing number plates, hiding high-performance cars and parking in manual cars so they can’t be jump-started.
“But every year, we still lose a few number plates,” Amir says.
What follows are a lot of hoops to jump through, from reporting the theft to police to having the car re-inspected by an authorised mechanic and reissuing with new plates.
“It’s a lot of hassle for us.”
It might not happen to every dealership, but Amir says it’s a particular problem for those like Canberra Toyota, which has an open-yard model.
“We see a lot of opportunity in not having high fences around the yard because it’s more inviting to potential buyers who can easily wander in and have a close look at the cars, but it’s not the perfect thing for summer.”
But it isn’t all bad.
After spending days around flash high-performance cars, other more well-mannered attendees of Summernats have their interest piqued in getting one for themselves, even if some of the test drives turn out to be little more than joy rides.
“Suddenly, the inquiries and test drives of cars like the Supra, GR86 and GR Yaris go through the roof because they’re tempted to come in and ask about the performance cars we have on offer,” Amir says.
“Some end up buying, but even if they are just looking, it still brings a bit of traction to the market.”
Security has also improved over the years, so Amir says thieves are far more likely to be caught this time.
Summernats kicks off with a cruise up and down Northbourne Avenue on Thursday, 5 January, before many of the cars and people from EPIC descend on Braddon for the Fringe Festival on Friday and Saturday evenings.
This was first held last year in response to the Braddon community lobbying the organisers and the City Renewal Authority (CRA) to bring more organisation to unofficial car meets in the area.
Before that, Shay McGarn from the Braddon Collective says cars would “drive up and down the streets at all hours making a lot of noise”.
“Burnouts and hooning was a real uncontrolled issue, and people would jump on top of shop roofs to see cars and things like that,” she says.
“Obviously, Braddon is quite a densely populated area with elderly people and young kids walking around, so it was unsafe.”
Shay also doesn’t want to deny Braddon’s history as a place full of mechanic’s garages and car yards but says the Fringe Festival has put a more welcoming, family-friendly spin on something that “would happen regardless of whether it was encouraged or not”.
“There are procedures in place, and we’ve got eateries open and music playing. It has really changed Braddon’s perspective of Summernats.”
Similar to Amir, Shay also says there is another silver lining.
“If Canberra didn’t have such a big event in January, all our retail outlets, hotels, eateries, cafes and bars would be struggling so much because half of Canberra is on holiday at that time. It’s a really important financial injection for local businesses.”
Tickets to Summernats are available online.