When a woman goes to Summernats…
“Gee, you’re brave …” that’s what the majority of friends, family and colleagues said, when I told them I was going back to Summernats. Alone.
LET’S JUST PONDER that for a moment. Why would that be the case? Why would it be considered ‘brave’ to go to one of Australia’s largest car festivals? Isn’t that just extraordinary in itself?
If you’re a car enthusiast, chances are you‘ve heard of Summernats. And if you’ve heard of Summernats, you’re aware of its reputation, which generally precedes it in all corners of the country, and indeed, the world.
It’s been many years since I’ve been to Summernats, but as a motoring writer now based in Canberra, I felt I had to give it another chance. And I was confident that attending during the daytime, armed with a Media accreditation, would offer a very different experience to some of the dark nights (figurative and literal) that I spent there as a young woman.
It’s important to note organisers have acknowledged the event’s shady past, and have strived over the past few years to remind us how much the event has changed, how much it has been cleaned up.
So have they succeeded yet?
Overall, Summernats is everything you might expect a festival of horsepower, burnouts and grassroots car culture to be. It’s (very) loud, dirty and hot. Your eyes will actually water from the fumes, and if you spend enough time in the burnout zone, you’ll likely come away sporting the ‘Summernats rubber tan’.
It’s telling that the first words I heard when I walked into the venue was a chant of ‘You are a sh!t c**t!’ (*clap clap, clap clap clap clap*).
Arising from a large of (mostly) men, gathered in a circle around some spectacle, I feared the worst.
The reality wasn’t quite as bad as I feared. A group of friends has started a game with some kids, where the kids would chase and grab a $5 note off the ground. Soon, they were surrounded by amused spectators. The ‘sh!t c**t’ chant was for any adult who happened to wander by and pick up the $5 for themselves.
This theme remained consistent was I wandered around the park. It’s definitely not an event for the faint of heart or easily offended, but for the most part, I felt safe and comfortable.
The Show and Shine taking place in the centre of the arena and the incredible Meguiar’s Pavilion were particularly impressive.
Things start to get a little hairier out on the street, where there’s a consistent procession of all manner of cars cruising, revving and bunny-hopping by.
That said, there really is something for everyone, which is one of Summernats’ great strengths. No matter which sub-set of car culture you’re part of, you’ll find friends here. Vintage cars, American Muscle, Australian classics, street cars, hot rods, Japanese hatches – you name it, they’re all here, and pretty well-represented.
I also found the Burnout Track to be surprisingly chilled, which was a bit of a surprise. The large numbers of fans present here were wholly focused on what was happening on the track, and I didn’t see any signs or trouble or misbehaviour. Though there’s a good chance many were delirious from inhaling all those burning rubber fumes …
But all the buzz post-event is about Tuff Street, and it is without a doubt, the thorn in the side of Summernats.
Tuff Street is a narrow 2-way strip running along the front of Exhibition Park. It’s bordered by white and red water barricades that are positively crumpling under the weight of the many men (and a few women) who are standing on them to get a better view of the action.
And it’s this kind of action that we need to talk about.
Tuff Street is not an area where you need to worry about seeing too many cars. You won’t see much past the crowds, and it’s only a select number that cruise down this way anyway. Tuff Street is the place you come to see that other well-known side of Summernats.
Spectators are generally armed with beers or bourbon slushies (the drink of choice on those hot Summernats days) and sporting the unofficial Summernats uniform of a wide sombrero hat. Every now and then, groups will chant and applaud cars as they spin their wheels. More often than not, these burnouts take place as an impromptu support group hold tight to the back and sides of the car to keep it in place, their bare-thonged feet perilously close to the screaming, smoking tyres.
But the loudest cheers and chants are reserved for when an attractive woman walks by. Whether she invites the attention or not, alarmingly large groups of men will shout ‘Black top! Black top! Black top!’ (or whatever the appropriate description) to try and cajole her into showing her breasts to the crowd. It’s important to note many women invite and encourage this attention – many from the safety of a moving vehicle – and if that’s their choice, all power to them, I say.
My great concern is for those young women who get caught in the cross fire, who don’t invite the attention but receive it anyway. In previous years, I’ve seen women literally backed into a corner by enormous crowds of growling, heaving, drunken men, and it’s terrifying. I didn’t witness such extremes of the behaviour this year, but then again, I was there at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and there no doubt it gets worse as night falls.
Within Tuff Street, there’s one location that I think sums up the very worst of Summernats, and that is the infamous Puppy Wash. Don’t bring Rover here for his weekly bath, because sadly, your four-legged friends are not the kind of ‘puppies’ being offered up for the washing here.
Summernats banned its notorious wet t-shirt competitions years ago, so I’m just not sure what this stand is even doing here. But it’s a big set up with a tent and vehicle, well-known, well-established. It seems to be endorsed – or at least accepted – by the organising crew.
Again, why is it even here?
This kind of stall represents the very culture they – by their own admissions – are supposed to be weeding out.
This kind of attitude toward women – even those women who willingly participate – is highly offensive to many average Aussies (men and women alike), and really not suitable for an event that pitches itself as suitable for families and kids.
Almost more offensive to me though, is that it has absolutely nothing to do with cars, and seem to be focused on ensuring that women know their key role at a motoring event is decoration.
Would I go to Summernats again? Absolutely. It’s a major local event, and there are some incredible cars on show and some really interesting people to meet and talk to.
Sadly though, many real car enthusiasts won’t attend, and that’s the problem.
Summernats has a lot of work to do before anyone could really be convinced the event has changed. I do think it’s improved a lot from the bad old days, and I do think the worst elements are in the minority.
But if a female fan has to be ‘brave’ to attend, even in the middle of the day; if there are many car enthusiasts, male and female, who simply won’t go because they find that culture so offensive; and if all these worst problems don’t actually have anything to do with the cars – then you have yourselves a big mess.
I’d love to see the organisers make Summernats into a real festival for people who love cars, and bikes, and trucks, and everything else on two or four wheels.
I’m not sure if it’s even still possible, but they could start by kicking out The Puppy Wash.