9 January 2018

Now I understand Summernats ... maybe

| Peter Norton
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Photos: Peter Norton.

Photos: Peter Norton.

Normally, on a very hot day with an extreme fire danger, the sight of a huge cloud of smoke visible from the top of Mt Ainslie would strike fear and dread in the heart and minds of firefighters and most Canberrans.

But the word “normal” does not fit well with Canberra’s annual Summernats celebration of cars and, perhaps more importantly, its celebration of rev-head culture.

Normally, people would avoid breathing clouds of toxic smoke, let alone be standing for hours in the scorching sun in a dense crowd. Oh, and let’s not forget that people pay to enjoy this torture!

Being a January tradition, the ‘Nats is normally hot and sunny. As they say, “suns out – guns out”, so the unofficial spectator uniform is a singlet top. But of course, we all remember Mum’s advice to be sun smart and wear a hat – a big sombrero completes the uniform.

On the big days, around 30,000 people gather to worship the noise, smoke and shiny cars.

But why, and what do they gather to watch? If a burnout is well executed, then there is not much to see!

I am a car fanatic. I cherish my car. I have polished cars. I have raced cars. I have photographed cars – lots of cars. I travel a fair bit to “chase cars”. But until now, I didn’t get Summernats. Why would you spend so much money to torture your treasured car? The biggest cheers at the ‘Nats were reserved for the fires and broken cars. Even the drivers celebrated the destruction.

Being a motorsport fan, I have attended Summernats every few years. It was mostly a novelty event for me. I have always been impressed by the workmanship and passion in the best show cars, but I was turned off by the anti-social element. This year I went with a goal of trying to understand Summernats.

I find it easy to understand the show cars and the spectacle of a large gathering of pristine and polished machines.

But for some people, it is all a bit boring. They just sit there silently sparkling. An enthusiasts eye is needed to fully appreciate the engineering and workmanship. How did they fit the modern engine into the old car, and where did they hide the wiring and various pipes? To the casual observer they are just cars, but if they gathered a few kilometres down the road, perhaps they would be respected for the artistry in their shapes, colour and the aesthetics of the designs. Maybe calling EPIC an annexe of the NGA’s sculpture garden would help the event be better accepted.

The Show and Shine brought out a smorgasbord of automotive magic, with everything from the classics with modest personalisation touches, through to more dramatic modifications.

It is not just polish and burnouts for the serious competitors. There was a series of driving events to test the skills of the drivers and performance of the cars. This was an area of great contradiction. High powered cars that simply could not grip or turn on the grass, regardless of the drivers’ skill. Then there were cars that should have been in their element, but the drivers kept messing up. It was not all bad. It was a thing of rare beauty to see large powerful muscle cars being thrown around the tight course with skill and style.

I have to admit that the burnouts were compelling viewing. It’s the noise, the smell, and the crowd support for the outrageous antics.

Yes, that is an inflatable rhino in the back of one of the cars, and yes, you can get tyres that produce coloured smoke.

Standing in the burning sun, watching the endless stream of cars parade by, I finally started to get it. Many of these cars can’t be driven on the road due to their modifications, or are simply too impractical to drive. Where else can you drive your creation and show off your style and work, whether it is fine workmanship or a wacky creation? The answer is to go cruising.

For the spectators, it brings the cars to life. The car lives and breathes. They roar and lurch around as the drivers try to restrain their savage beasts, or in some cases try to tame their Frankenstein like monsters.

The most notorious stretch of road for cruising inside of the event is known as Tuff Street. This area has the worst reputation for anti-social crowd behaviour and dangerous driving … and the area with some of the biggest crowds. So what is the appeal?

Outside of Summernats, you can go to static car displays, or you could go to a race track to watch racing cars from a safe distance, or you could go to the pub to talk to your mates about cars and silly antics. At the ‘Nats, you bring it all together and it happens a metre or so from where you are drinking and laughing with your mates.

Tuff Street has the added showmanship of the crowd and drivers pushing the limits further. It is the teasing by the driver who gives the car a brief tap on the gas unleashing the car’s power, just a bit, for a bit of noise and smoke, but not too much.

It is a cat and mouse game between the larrikins and the security forces. At the mob’s insistence, drivers push the boundaries of the rules – how much speed, wheel spinning and smoke can you get away with before getting your entry stickers pulled off the car and getting kicked out?

Why do it?

It’s all about the show, and being part of the show.



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