Oppressive Australian heat, sombrero hats, spilled beers and a taste that’s a bitter mixture of tyre smoke and red dust. All soundtracked beautifully by a symphony of blown V8s and the death screams of tyres.
This is Summernats, Australia’s largest and most iconic annual car culture event.
Unable to recount how many times I’ve been randomly questioned about the festival when Summernats 32 rolled around, I thought it best to forgo the grand overview (which you can still read right here) and focus on what the event is like to attend as a regular punter.
This year I’d trade the coveted media vest for a regular t-shirt and a camping pass, with the intention of sharing a more personal account of the weekend. I’ll take you with me as we crash a mate’s camping site, explore the event, cruise, and maybe even fry a set of tyres.
Hopefully, whatever we lose in scale will be replaced with an additional injection of fun.
And ultimately, isn’t that why we’re all here? Whether you class it as fun, enjoyment or relaxation, the car scene is often our escape from the mundane. And escape we shall.Back To Base
What great timing. Just minutes after parking Project Nine, I was saved the long trek to camp with all my gear by the gents in today’s taxi, the ‘Poo Bird.’ Quick, jump in.
What’s a Poo Bird? Great question, I had to ask too.
Answer: an LS-powered Nissan Bluebird, a ratty little wagon built expressly for lapping and killing tyres at what some Aussie’s consider to be the holy land, Canberra’s Exhibition Park.
If the Macquarie Dictionary was ever inclined to add the term ‘Skid Pig’ to their concise edition, the Poo Bird would provide an ideal illustration.
I’d be a terrible host if I let you freeloaders crash at my friend’s campsite without introducing you to the crew.
Guys, meet Adam and his pink socks. Our first encounter involved a video camera in a dimly lit garage, an almost finished Compact Fairlane, and a few bottles of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey. As suspect as that sounds, it really isn’t too far from the reality of the situation.
A few years ago I’d been sent out to shoot a quick interview for Street Machine magazine about the supercharged Nissan VH45 V8 Adam had recently slung under the hood of his 1964 Ford Fairlane 500, and we got along well enough to catch up on a semi-regular basis ever since.
Adam, meet the Speedhunters crew. I sure hope you’ve got enough tyre shine there for everyone, champ.
These other reprobates are (in no particular order) Allan, Justin, Greg, Ian, Brad, and Michael.
A group of single tents and mattresses in utes spiralled around the community hub, two large double marquees fitted out with an electric grille and a small refrigerator, and enough table space and chairs for the entire crew – what more do you need?
Our campsite bordered on luxurious when compared to other sites. Life is good.
Finally, a second large marquee and floor cover made an adequate mobile garage for the gang to chase problems and replace the carcasses of spent tyres for fresh sacrificial rubber.Going Walkabout
With introductions made and perhaps a cheeky greeting beverage or two consumed, it was time to slap on my fanciest pair of thongs and hit the dirt tracks.
Being such a spread-out event, walking is the only real option to take in all that’s on offer.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of liquid refreshments around to stay hydrated.
Not only are there too many side roads and back alleys to drive, but folks with little self-control just end up revisiting ‘Skid Row’ to slay another set of tyres, which we’ll get into later.
Scale and size are so difficult to convey in single frames, but over the weekend I managed to walk 22km (13.6 miles), and still missed half of the main event and even more of what was hiding in tent city behind the main arena. I know how much I missed, because I only saw a small contingent of the people I knew were also at the Nats.
At this point in the day, the humid 37°C (98.6°F) heat was starting to get the best of me. It was time to acquire the Summernats traditional bourbon slushie and a dagwood dog (AKA corn dog, pluto pup, battered frankfurt…), then to seek out a temporary shelter.
With Adam, Michael and Allan scheduled for their moments of glory on the pro burnout pad, I knew exactly where to put my feet up.
We’ll delve more into the burnouts in a separate story soon; it’d be a shame to try and condense such a unique and colorful aspect of Summernats into a single chapter.The Road To Skid Row
Despite officially signing off to spectate this year, old habits and genuine curiosity can never be killed. I’d spent the best part of the Friday away from the main arenas, hunting out those weird and wonderful gems that are often overlooked.
It’s a real shame too, because it’s this mix between old school toughness and oddball builds that makes Summernats such a unique event, even by local standards. The style lays somewhere between Mad Max and rockabilly.
It’ll be interesting to see how that style and even the types of cars in attendance will evolve in the future, but that could be another story for a different day.
Right now though, it’s time to pile into Adam’s 1964 Fairlane 500 to complete two more rites of Summernats passage.
First up, it’s a laid back cruise of the main circuit. Or if you wanted to be more precise, it’s time to go lappin’. Later on, we’ll head to Skid Row.
Now, not all the cars are dedicated Summernats machinery, but over the years there’s been a growing number of cars purpose-built to maximize the January fun.
Along with the apparent burnout cars, a secondary category of cars exists almost exclusively to ferry around friends and family during the four-day festival.
And within that second group of builds are even more sub-styles. Some are built for maximum noise and a casual skid, sorry, I mean an ‘accidental chirp.’ Whoops…
Others are built to be low and slow. One thing they all have in common is that they’re almost exclusively made to grab as much of the crowd’s attention as possible.
We admired the moving metal of the rolling car show as we cut a few laps of our own before descending on our final destination and then hanging up the car keys in order to down a few extra beverages.
It was time to put on a show for the crowds gathered along Skid Row. This is a new, secondary dedicated burnout arena built to help reduce some of the unsolicited burnouts that used to take place along ‘Tuff Street.’
If you were to only listen to the wise opinions in Facebookland, Skid Row was a massive flop that nobody enjoyed. Clearly, the massive crowds lining the fences and adjacent rooftops missed that important status update.
By the time I’d arrived at Summernats, Adam had already slain at least four sets of tyres in Skid Row and was a massive advocate for the new addition.
In just a few moments I’d be able to form my own opinion on the new informal burnout pad, and also finally experience the maximum potential of the transplanted supercharged VH45.
Three, two, one – send it!
I’d class this as a successful skid. With wind minimal and the runway quite tight, Adam had to back off a couple of times, just long enough to be able to see past the bonnet again.
Mission accomplished: new clouds made and tyres slain. I’d also be willing to throw a big fat rubber stamp on the Skid Row concept. Have we just witnessed the beginnings of a brand new tradition at the 32-year-old festival?
When people tell you Summernats has changed, they’re right, it has. Dramatically, too. But if Australia’s oldest, largest and most iconic festival is to survive, it absolutely has to. After spending a weekend as a regular attendee who was more concerned with having a good time than chasing good content, if the event continues to evolve on its current path, I for one will continue to head back.
Hell, I’ll even bring the family along when they’re old enough.