Every summer, tens of thousands of motoring enthusiasts take over the nation’s capital.
Rebecca Pearse stumbled across the Summernats festival during her first Canberra summer.
“I went to Lonsdale street on a Saturday night, just to get gelato and a beer, and it happened to be the night that the Summernats enthusiasts take over!”
She watched as festival goers cruised around Braddon, in Canberra’s inner-north.
Rebecca asked Curious Canberra why the annual festival is held in the city, and “what goes on there because I imagine a lot of people who live in Canberra just don’t go.”
For a city that’s also home to Floriade, an annual event dedicated to tulips, a festival dedicated to fast cars and burnouts might seem like a bit of a stretch.
But, in 2017 — the event’s thirtieth year — more than 119,000 people attended the festival that’s all about modified cars and the people who love to drive them.
There’s one person who knows exactly how it found a home in Canberra — its founder, Chic Henry.
Canberra and Summernats — ‘together forever’
Before Summernats was a thing, Chic Henry was a car-enthusiast and the director of the Australian Street Machines Federation.
The federation held national events, usually in country towns.
“Somebody told me about NATEX [National Exhibition Centre] — or EPIC [Exhibition Park in Canberra] as it’s called now — so I came this way and had a look.”
As a potential venue, it ticked a lot of boxes.
It was close to the highway, had plenty of exhibition space, on-site camping — and there was room grow.
His visit set the wheels in motion.
By 1988, Chic had moved to Canberra, left the Australian Street Machines Federation, and founded Summernats (“Nats is short for national, and we run it in summer”, just in case you were wondering).
These days, it’s co-owned and run by Andy Lopez.
“Chic built the Summernats around Exhibition Park … and Exhibition Park as a venue has developed around the Summernats,” he said, admitting that he’d considered moving the event.
For the uninitiated — here’s what it’s all about
If you haven’t been to Summernats that could be because the bulk of festival goers come from interstate.
Organisers estimate that 85 per cent of last year’s crowd travelled for the event, which is all part of the experience.
“What Summernats and Canberra really have in common is innovation … our event is about innovation.”
The event’s founder says it’s all about “cars that are modified, customised and restored”, and the people who build them.
“We can have them judged to find out the best paint and interior … we can have driving events that prove performance, we can cruise around … and have rock and roll bands,” Chic said.
There’s the official event program, and then there’s the part Rebecca observed — the late night cruising.
“If you go to the Summernats, you’ll see how some people just go round, and round, and round. They’d do it for 24 hours a day if you let them.”
And here’s what’s changed…
Seeing the mostly male Summernats crowd in Braddon prompted another question from our Curious Canberran.
“Who are the women that go?” Rebecca asked. “Is there a way to speak to one of them?”
Through Chic, I met Christine Corkhill, a Canberran who’s never missed an event. She’s also managed the burnout pad for more than 30 years.
Chrissie bought her first car, a Chevrolet, at 18.
She became involved in the event through her car club.
“There’s a lot of women behind the scenes … if they didn’t have the passion [for cars] they wouldn’t be working in the Summernats office.”
More women are attending the festival too. Owner Andy Lopez says female attendance has jumped from 15 to 35 per cent in the eight years he’s run the event.
“Summernats is continuing to become a place that women feel comfortable to be at,” he said.
He’s cancelled the Miss Summernats beauty contest too, a constant of the festival for the last 30 years.
“We thought it had run its course,” Andy said. “It didn’t bring anything to the event and it certainly didn’t line up with the way we want women to be presented at Summernats.”
For Chrissie, what keeps her coming back to the festival year after year isn’t something that can be explained in writing.
“You really have to come … and see what it’s about,” she said. “It is a great weekend and everyone should go at least once in their lifetime!”
Who asked the question?
If Rebecca’s name sounds familiar that’s because we’ve answered a question from her before.
She lived in Canberra for just under a year, and in that time found plenty of things to be curious about.
Rebecca Pearse was around for Summernats 2017. While she wasn’t sure what to make of it, she did look up how much it would cost to attend.