The roar of engines is turning into a distant rumble, the smell of petrol and exhaust fumes is fading, and the rubber smoke is clearing.
Summernats is over for another year. And what a year it was, with a record number of 119,000 people attending and around 2,500 cars participating (about 600 vehicles more than the previous record).
Of course, as we’re all likely aware by now, this year’s event was marred by the tragic death of a 30 year old man from Queensland, reportedly the first fatal accident in the event’s history. The young man died while riding on the back of a ute – a practice that is illegal but is nonetheless commonplace at the event. Riding in the tray of a ute has now been banned pending an investigation into the incident, so time will tell if the ban is maintained for future years.
Last week, I wrote about heading back to the event after many years of absence, and what I expected to see.
Okay ‘Nats – let’s do this.
In short, not a lot has changed – but that might be okay.
Here’s what I found.
First, it’s not an event for the faint of heart.
The sombrero – without a doubt, the official uniform of Summernats
Look, there’s no denying Summernats is hot, loud, dirty, and pretty in-your-face. Risks aside, this is probably the nature of many a large-scale outdoor motoring event – V8 SuperCars, Formula 1, whatever.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m no prude, and like many of us, I’ve always thought those who complain about the event year after year to be a bit wowserish.
But as my ears pinged with the constant roar of engines, my eyes – literally – watering from the fumes, and as I watched plume after plume of smoke drift into the sky over the Burnout Track, I did find myself sympathising a little with the wowsers.
Summernats certainly isn’t for everyone. If you love it and embrace all that it is, great! But it would be tough for those who have to deal with it on their doorstep regardless.
Media access terms are suspiciously restrictive.
As I indicated in my last piece, the term and conditions for gaining media accreditation to the event are very restrictive.
My background is in PR and event management, and I’ve managed large-scale events attended by tens of thousands of people as well. And I’ve never encountered media operations that are quite as limiting as these.
I’m grateful to the Summernats team for approving our application to attend, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point out my concerns with this process.
Why restrict media from filming in the Burnout zone if you’re not afraid of what they might capture? Why ban media from the site after dark if you have nothing to hide? Why not allow media to live stream, when every other punter with a mobile phone is able to do so?
To me, these limitations create – perhaps unnecessary? – suspicion. I spent some time on the outskirts of the Burnout Track (because I’m a rebel like that …), and I found it all to be rather civilised.
Which leads nicely to my next point …
The difference between zones is significant.
After spending a few hours walking around the site, it was clear to me that there really are a number of very different subsets of the motoring community present, and the impact this has on the various different elements of the festival is very apparent.
If you brave the scorching sun to stroll through the Show ‘n’ Shine in the centre of the arena, you’ll find a relative level of stillness and families picnicking in the few shady spots beside their cars.
Visit my favourite location, the pavilion sponsored by Meguiar’s specialised paint and protection products, and you’ll find remarkable vehicles so buffed and polished to perfection, you won’t touch them for fear of leaving fingerprints.
Just outside the door however, you have the main cruise strip where the aforementioned eye-watering took place. It’s noisy alright, but still good fun to stand and watch the cars go by. This feels like the centre of all the action.
Show us your … spark plugs …
As mentioned above, I wandered up to the Burnout Track expecting it to fulfil all the worst clichés of Summernats. What I found was a really chilled-out crowd, lots of kids and families, happily sipping their drinks, thoroughly focused on the track activities and showing enthusiastic support for the best performers. It was both surprising and really impressive.
And then there’s Tuff Street.
Tuff Street runs parallel to Flemington Road inside the boundaries of EPIC.
You don’t need to worry about seeing too many cars, because all you’ll really see are the back of many (possibly intoxicated) dudes in singlets and sombreros, standing on barricades. Many will be screaming ‘Grey top! Grey top! Grey top!’ or such like at any woman passing by, who they suspect might be convinced to show off her, ahem, goodies.
It was interesting in a way to walk though – a bit like watching a wildlife documentary – but not somewhere I wanted to spend much of my time.
I am all about equality though, so I was reassured to hear about the bloke standing casually nearby, completely naked from the waist down. For quite some time. At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I can’t say I saw him for myself though, despite my very, very best efforts …
The real star of Tuff Street, however, deserves its own chapter.
The Puppy Wash. What is this even doing here?
I don’t usually like to point the finger at individual people or businesses, but this was clearly a well-established enterprise and I can only assume it’s taking place with the support of organisers.
The Puppy Wash is apparently something of a Summernats icon, set up alongside Tuff Street.
Lest you be confused, there are plenty of images on display to clarify that the kind of ‘puppies’ on offering for the washing are not small, cute and furry. Apparently it’s $1 for the first ‘puppy’ and the second one is free – I’m just not sure who actually pays, the washer or the washee? …
Amidst all there is to like and to question about Summernats, I could laugh most things off. But this kind of stall represents the very culture that organisers are determined to convince us they’re weeding out.
Absolutely nothing to do with cars, highly offensive to many average Aussies (men and women alike), really not suitable for kids, and overall, making sure the women know their key role at a motoring event is decoration.
Sorry Summernats – 1981 called and it wants its idea of entertainment back. Just because you’re 30 years old, doesn’t mean your sideshow needs to be 30 years out of date.
So all things considered, would I go to Summernats again? Absolutely.
[though I might need to go in disguise after this post].
Having been back to Summernats now, I do think the nasty element is the minority.
Sadly, at any large public event, there’ll be people in the community who see it as a chance to leave their dignity at the door; and Summernats seems to attract more than its fair share of them.
I do think it’s a real shame there are still ‘no go’ zones, but likewise, there are many really comfortable and chilled spaces too. And a lot of really cool cars, and cool people, and great things to eat.
It’s clearly an event with a sense of humour, and it even supports charity.
Perhaps most of all, I worry that Summernats’ reputation and pervading culture keep many really interested motoring enthusiasts away. This has certainly been my observation following lots of discussions about it over the past few weeks: “I’d love to go, there’s a lot there I’d like to see – but nope, just can’t do it.”
Many people choose instead to grab an outside table at a restaurant or café on Bunda Street in the city and watch the parade of cars from there. Organisers are missing out on valuable dollars, too, something of which they should take note, especially if they’d like to keep setting those records.
Summernats’ Andy Lopez, sporting an impressive ‘Summernats rubber tan’ wraps up the 2017 event:
What do you think? Did you go to Summernats this year? Any ideas on how to make it a more people-friendly event? Or should it be left for the people who love it just the way it is?