Have you ever you caught yourself wondering what aliens – were they ever to happen upon our little blue planet – might think of humanity? Not just our fleshy forms, but the countless rituals, celebrations and leisure pursuits that make up ‘culture’ as we know it. What would the ultimate impartial observer make of us?
The automotive world has plenty of examples that might raise a martian eyebrow: the insane speeds of The Isle of Man TT, the illogical onikyan cars of Japan and this – the Summernats Car Festival, held annually in Australia’s capital city, Canberra.
For four days in January, punters from every corner of this vast country gather to celebrate in an orgy of alcohol, methanol and tyre smoke that when analysed objectively quite frankly doesn’t make any sense. I wonder if our alien friends would watch on in confused fascination as their David Attenborough equivalent tries to rationalise how this is related to some sort of mating ritual or an expression of social status…
I mean, where’s the logic in spending countless hours and mountains of money to build a car that’s sole purpose is to demolish the rear tyres in a swift and spectacular fashion?
The cars often destroy themselves in the process, and not only is that tolerated, but celebrated by the pumped-up crowds.
But clearly this love we have for our cars across the world isn’t just a rational thing, or we’d all be driving beige 1.2L hatchbacks. The culture that surrounds our four-wheeled creations is as rich, vibrant and diverse as any subculture, and that’s something to be celebrated.
Summernats is the halo event for Australia’s street machine scene, formed mainly around Australian-built cars that have been modified by their owners for drag racing, burnouts or, most commonly, simply cruising the streets with a carload of mates.
This particular sub-culture is one of the oldest and most established in Australia, and the influence isn’t diminishing; 200,000 people came through the gates at the 29th annual event.
Despite the attempts of the event’s management to make Summernats into a family environment, there’s still a strong nostalgic attachment to the lawless events of years past. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like 10 or so years ago.
So it would be easy to write the event off as some sort of bogan-fest (bogan being the Australian equivalent of a redneck), but looking back, one of the defining parts of the Summernats experience was the complete openness and lack of pretentiousness from everyone in attendance. I challenge any doubting car-nut to actually head along to one of these events and not end up laughing and cheering at the sheer madness of some of the cars and behaviour on display.
The disdain for authority, personified by the event’s fluoro-clad security guards, is still strong in 2016; entrants pride themselves on flouting the rules in displays of horsepower that the crowd goes absolutely mad for. Pictured above is a rolling burnout in ‘Tuff St’, which despite appearances is a ‘no burnout’ zone.
The result of such showmanship is generally a de-stickering; the car’s entry is revoked and the owner has to remove it from the event. If you’ve got somewhere to be, it’s not a bad way to end your time at Summernats!Burning Rubber & Everything Else
Burnouts are what Summernats is famous for, but if the event management had their way most would be confined to the Liqui-Moly Burnout Track – a temporary amphitheatre that for these four days in January are home to the Summernats round of the national Burnout Masters competition.
It goes without saying that these aren’t the sort of burnouts that your cousin did in the industrial area around the corner. To be competitive at Burnout Masters there is a level of preparation and skill involved similar to any top-level sporting competition. To our American readers, take note: this is how you do a burnout.
The process is pretty simple: wait for the flag to drop and start frying tyres! Contestants make their way down a narrow lane before tipping into a larger skid pad where they can move the car around and obliterate the tryes for the next two minutes.
Contestants are judged on criteria such as quantity and quality of smoke, usage of the available area, bursting tyres and overall showmanship, which my personal favourite, BLWNLUX, delivered by the bucketload.
This might seem a bit un-Australian, but Summernats was actually my first time at a proper burnout comp. Coming into the event I knew it would be a chance to grab some great photos, but I really didn’t expect it to be such an intense experience, and on top of that really enthralling as a spectator. Every car and contestant brings a different style to the skid pan, and seeing how the different approaches pay off or don’t is super engaging. There’s an element of finesse and flair involved, but it’s definitely no figure skating competition.
Even from high up in the grandstands the noise is thunderous, and in some cases required an abandonment of the camera for the sake of my eardrums.
As a photographer you have to be on your toes, because it’s only a matter of seconds after the burnout starts that the car disappears completely into the smoke cloud, making any attempts at photography completely futile.
The real hardcore burnout fans pack hard against the temporary fencing to get as close to the action as possible and literally breathe in the experience. The rubber refuse covers their faces as some sort of war paint, although smoking a pack of cigarettes would no doubt be healthier! It’s hard not to have an odd respect for these guys though, and I tried my best to not to do a Derek Zoolander impression, “I think I’m getting the black lung, pop” in their vicinity…
Requiring a special mention are the crew on hand to extinguish any fires and clean up the skid pan after a particularly messy run. Take a closer look at the face beneath that purple hat – that would take at least four showers to clean off.
At the far end of the skid pad the cars gather after their burnouts, tilted back onto the bare rear rims and looking like wounded warriors while awaiting the results from judging.
Understandably, most competitors run cheap and plentiful ‘steelies’ for the competition, and I imagine they’re thrown out with the tyres. If the tyres aren’t completely and utterly shredded there’s no chance of going home with the win, so the drivers don’t leave anything to chance.
But nothing pleases the crowd like a display of pyrotechnics. Go hard enough and the intense heat generated will simply set the tyres alight, the results of which you can see above.
Check out this Street Machine video to see the madness that led to CUTSIK ending up in such a sorry state.And There’s More
Even after escaping the smoke cloud at Burnout Masters, wandering amongst the 2000-plus rides at Canberra Exhibition Park is pretty overwhelming for a first timer. The sheer volume of cars, displays and events-within-events is mind bending, and it’s a feeling returning to me as I write this article. There was so much happening that at times it could be disorientating, and fitting all the good bits into one story is not an easy task!
Having said that, one area definitely worthy of a visit is the Meguiar’s Judging Hall, where the absolute cream of the crop are gathered and displayed in anticipation of judging for award purposes. This Datsun 1200 coupé was unique for a number of reasons, not limited to holding the title for ‘World’s Fastest Datsun” (7.34-second ET), a circa-1000hp 13B turbo, and a recently completed ground-up rebuild by some of Australia’s best workshops.
Saving the best for last in the display hall brings us to John Saad’s Mazda RX-3. The car is not only a great example of Australian show car style and workmanship, but a bonafide performance car too; John managed to take out 2nd place at the Summernats slalom (off-road motorkhana) event. The RX-3 has been taking out top honours at every show it appears, including MotorEx last year, and it’s easy to see why.
The quality of cars on display outside the show halls is admittedly varied, but it’s not hard to find serious builds like this Ford Capri with what is probably the biggest blower I’ve ever seen, just parked on the side of the road…
Or cruising the route around the exhibition park, giving the punters a chance to see and hear the cars up close.
One of the most unexpected (but welcome) finds was this third generation Mark II dropped down onto some period Japanese wheels. Upon closer inspection at Sunday’s Classic & Vintage display I struggled to find a single flaw or sign of wear – even the engine bay plastics looked brand spanking new. It was funny to hear one passerby comment about how odd it was that someone had chosen an “old Cressida” to modify, although as we all know, it’s a great base for a cruiser build.
Equally unexpected, a Mazda Bongo van and a matching Capella, both restored to an exacting original specification and on display in Sunday’s Show ‘N’ Shine display.
Don’t get confused though, the Japanese metal is still the exception to the rule at Summernats. Although it was great to see a rotary take out Grand Champion, the V8 continues to rule the roost, and I can’t see that changing any time soon.
There are some aspects of Summernats that will need to change whether the fans like it or not: health and safety, political concerns and even environmental woes continue to creep in from every angle. Honestly, it’s kind of amazing that the current format can still exist in 2016, but that comes down to the level of passion and loyalty the paying public has for the event.
But as long as there’s rubber tyres, you can be sure that Australia’s revheads will be turning up to Summernats in droves to see them get shredded.
Nobody does burnouts like us Aussies, Id bet my life on it! If you have never been to a Summernats, you have to go, its a pilgrimage in Oz, maybe even for the rest of the world! Its insane...
Blake, you'll be pleased to know that RELOAD won the pro-class at the Burnout Outlaws comp in Sydney the weekend after Summernats. And that CUTSIK was there, complete with the "Zero F*cks Given" sticker over the burnt paint. It's just a shame no camera can even pretend what it's like to be at a serious burnout comp. It's visceral. You feel it as much as see it or hear it. If you get a chance, I highly recommend spending some quality time down on the fence. Roughly tip in point is best (depending on the breeze).
The reason why the cars in the burnout comps (there's two at the Summernats) cop so much damage. This is the biggest event on the burnout calendar. It's like the grand final. So every competitor pushes that much harder to win, with the attitude of "well, if I burn it to the ground, I burn it to the ground". No-one holds back in the burnouts at the Summernats.
As for the Summernats-style of car modification, it actually evolved through practicalities. Building cars to cope with giant burnouts and slow cruising laps with lots of people in 40+ degree heat. Canberra can be stupid amounts of hot. Blown engines are the norm because they're better for burnouts - yeah, a blower soaks up power, but it's power delivery is directly proportional to your foot. Important when there's lots of concrete around. Big blown engines are cool to look at, but the blower-on-the-tunnel-ram setup makes for less heat soak. Methanol is really common because it makes bulk power, but mostly because it keeps the temps under control, so they run rich. The ridiculous dish comes from the need to protect the rear guards when doing a burnout on stockies. Very short diffs and wheel tubs made of heavy gauge steel mean the flailing belts don't do much damage if at all. Also, the lack of rear brakes is all to do with heat+expansion=brakes locking on without hydraulic pressure. Sedans mean it's easier to cruise a lap with a car load of mates on board. Ditto utes. Although I wish they'd move away from the one-up-man-ship that led them to put 22"s on a muscle car.
Awesome coverage of an awesome event. Aussies sure will stick a blown V8 in anything and skid it, which I love(you should have posted photo's of some of the stranger blown V8 cars there Blake). Good on the RX3 for winning top spot, 2nd rotor powered Japanese car in a row!
One thing I can't wrap my head around though is the act of ruining, destroying, melting, burning and wrecking your car for a skid. I love burnouts, don't get me wrong, but this new trend of wrecking your big dollar car to impress a crowd just doesn't make sense to me....but hey, whatever tickles your pickle. I also hate the look of the massively tubbed cars on skinnies for skids, it just looks goofy, but no one's going to skid on big, wide wheels, so I get it.
Also, a lot of people gave the RX3 grief for not being able to skid at the presentation, but I don't see anyone else out there trying to skid on their 22x12's and 335's! Plus, everyone knows a rotor isn't a torque monster like a V8, so it's going struggle even more, but throw some 205's on it(like the V8 skid cars do) and it would have!
When the methanol cars roll past and your throat burns, your eyes water, eardrums throb and your whole body vibrates.
f**k it, I'm going again next year!
@Jip Spec Racing methanol doesnt burn, your just a pussy, go stand next to a nitro motor, THAT burns
Ok...that does it. We have to somehow arrange Yanks vs. Aussies drag races/burnouts/muscle car tomfoolery somewhere halfway across the ocean. Guam? Isolated Atoll? Weld a couple of aircraft carriers together in the Pacific and ship our cars out?
Ill trade ya some Chevy badges for some Holden ones.
I'm envious that: 1) its summer down there 2) your girls like my Yank accent 3) we don't get turbo I6 Fords 4) I can't VB beer anywhere in the states
The 2 dollar a gallon gas makes up for it.
@jbfromsiliconvalley dumbasses already put chev badges on holdens no need to swap lol
I don't think I've ever seen so many inbreds in one place. Just goes to show that my theory that all V8 drivers are w*****s is correct.
@Ahmed I wouldn't say all v8 drivers are wankers, but certainly would say that all wankers at summernats drive v8s. I was considering going next year, as I actually believed organisers when they said it is a family friendly event. Yeah right. I'm not travelling for 3 days just to see a bunch of bogans ignoring rules, trying to punch on with security and screaming at my wife to show them her tits.
This event is plagued by the morons you see on ACA, and are the exact reason why the police think all car guys are hoons. These tools are the same morons who used to do burnouts in the macca's car parks, they just got older and can afford more expensive cars.
Maybe one day the summernats will grow up, but I can't see it being anytime soon.
@Ahmed what kind of cars do you like Ahmed? I've jumped to the conclusion that all people who like what you like are wankers, therefore your comment proves that my theory that you are a wanker is correct.
@the_escape_road Cheers Matt!
@Schwaglet Witness me!!!!
@Peter_Kelly Well c'mon then! I suspect Summernats 30 will be a big one.
@DaveT Do it! The burnout comps run all year long but Summernats is undoubtedly the most well renowned event.
@LouisYio Haha, time for a showdown methinks.
@LouisYio They must not have lawyers/EPA/Insurance companies.
@BT180 Thanks, hope you enjoyed it.
@Gman993 Thanks Graeme, a completely different world to our Porsche events...
@Autofokus Thanks Rob! Bring the Targa down next year?
@Guest We certainly have a distinct style down here that doesn't really have any international equivalent. Some of the newer builds seem to be doing a much better job of aesthetics, keep an eye out on the spotlights coming up.
@Guest Its the rims and chrome. Everything else will be on point then you get to the 22" rubber bands on 5-spokes and bits of chrome and its just....gah. Build is on point, engine, welds and parts, everything and mad respect but dang, 'straya, why you do this?
@D1RGE EXE I think the big diameter wheels must come from the pro street days because if you've got big tubs you might as well fill them up with something. For example there was an ex drag/burnout ute that used to have huge slicks on the rear which now has 24x16 inch wheels.
But I do agree that I can look a little over the top and donkish sometimes
@D1RGE EXE It's not as though Americans don't use big wheels. Pro tourers and plenty of tubbed muscle over there on 22's. But I get what you're saying.....we just don't quite get the stance right when doing it IMO.
@D1RGE EXE Having said that, the winning RX3, which is a small car on 22's, got it right IMO with the height. There's also not a lot of oversized chrome/billet wheel cars in this coverage though.
@Spaghetti @D1RGE EXE I will readily admit that you guys are moving away from the "Lux" style and the chrome, and also agree that you do see some straight donk on Pro-Touring at SEMA. But if you saw the guys that drive their pro-tourers hard, they use a proper sidewall :) I'm all for a bigger more modern wheel/tire/fitment combo, but redonkulous wheels suck everywhere.
@Ekoumvak Thank you for the support!