It’s official. Escorted by police, hundreds of gleaming modified cars cruised down Northbourne Avenue today, setting Australia’s biggest petrolhead festival in motion.
Summernats returns to Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC) until Sunday, 8 January, in what is expected to be a “record-breaking year”.
“There is nothing like it anywhere in the world and we’re really proud that over the next four days there’ll be thousands of cars cruising around Canberra,” Summernats co-owner Andy Lopez says.
“We’re one big bit of life that brings economic benefit to the city when it really needs it.”
For the first time in the event’s 35-year history, car entries sold out – more than 2700 will be on show. Previous years have seen an estimated 50,000 visitors attend the event, injecting $30 million into an otherwise quiet ACT economy at this time of year. But Andy expects this year’s figures to be more like 100,000 attendees and $35 million.
“Coming out of COVID, there is renewed enthusiasm for the event,” he says.
“People have been busily working on their cars for a couple of years now with nowhere to take them to play, but we’re going to see them all this year.”
Most of the official action takes place at EPIC in Mitchell, only breaking outside the gates for the Fringe Festival in Braddon on the Friday and Saturday evenings.
Show car judge Rachael Durbridge and her team have already spent two 16-hour days poring over every nook and cranny on the entered cars and dividing them into categories for the different competitions. These include Street and Elite, with subdivisions for sedans, coupes, wagons, standard paint, special-effects paint, degree of engineering and even the condition and appearance of the undercarriage.
“It’s really important we give each car a thorough going-over because some of these owners have spent years to get them as immaculate as they are today,” she says.
Then there are trophies up for grabs based on noise, power levels and, of course, burnouts.
A Grand Champion of Summernats will be named on Sunday and receive a large sword as the prize.
It wouldn’t be Summernats without a host of other competitions as well, such as tattoos, fashion and mullets.
The Mulletfest was first added to the Summernats itinerary in 2020 as an opportunity for 30 attendees to compete over the length and volume of their back fringe, with certified hairdresser Laura Johnson umpiring.
Her family came up with the idea in their hometown of Kurri Kurri, in the Hunter Valley, as “a way to save our family’s pub while also bringing people together for a bit of a laugh”.
Last year, the number of competitors grew to 83 and Laura has high hopes for 2023.
“We have different categories for different types of mullets – from those who have just started growing them to the vintage old blokes,” she says.
“The judges are looking for suitability to character, condition, cut length and stage presence. It matters that you have a reason behind your mullet.”
Those winners are then eligible to compete in the Mulletfest Grand Final in Kurri Kurri at the end of the year.
As for the connection to cars, Laura describes it as a match made in heaven.
“It’s such an iconic Aussie hairstyle, and I just feel like cars and mullets are like peas and carrots.”
The musical side to Summernats is headlined by a four-hour “super concert” on Friday evening, featuring Jon Stevens, Daryl Braithwaite, Diesel and Shannon Noll. ‘Working Class Man’ Jimmy Barnes was scheduled to appear but had to pull out due to hip and back surgery.
Andy welcomes the ‘Summernats-curious’ and those who might have been put off by the event’s reputation from years past.
“It’s fair to say there has been some antisocial stuff over the years, but we have worked really hard to make it a safe and inclusive festival for everyone,” he says.
“We want men, women and families to come and enjoy themselves, no matter the time.”
There will be a sombre tone to Summernats 35, though, as it’s the first since founder Chic Henry died in April 2022.
“His DNA is all through Summernats, so he’s on our branded T-shirts and grandstand,” Andy says.
“But he wasn’t the sort of guy who would want us to stop and pause – he’ll want us to party hard and we’ll do that.”
ACT Policing is gearing up to provide a “high-visibility presence” over the weekend, conducting random roadside testing for alcohol and illicit drugs, and targeting burnouts and reckless driving.
“We’re not here to stop anyone from having a good time, but we will be targeting antisocial behaviour and issues such as speeding, impaired driving, and burnouts in and around the venue,” Inspector Dave Williams says.
“Dangerous driving will not be tolerated outside the designated show areas.”
Buy tickets to Summernats 35 online.