There's an old saying that goes, "If it ain't broke don't fix it." But having said that, most people would agree that a little fine tuning is okay. A few years back, Australian Summernats promoter, Chic Henry, realized the world's most outrageous car festival was becoming a little too outrageous. The crowd was getting bigger, and many street machiners were coming to the party but leaving their cars safe at home. It was time for a fine tune. Chic stopped people bringing their own alcoholic beverages into the event, and introduced some new crowd control measures.
Numbers fell in the first year, but this year the crowd was back to near record attendance and Bel Airs, Impalas, Camaros and other classics were back on the Summernats streets.
The 16th running of the Summernats got rolling on the first Friday in January. With the mercury nudging 95, and fires threatening the tinder dry bushland surrounding the national capital, hot machines streamed into town for three days and nights of automotive Woodstock.
Canberra's Exhibition Park was packed with tens of thousands of young Aussies who have been bringing their good time culture to the capital for the past 16 years-many haven't missed a Summernats since it started in the mid-'80s.
For serious entrants, the Summernats is a driver's event. The Grand Champion's sword is reserved for the entrant who amasses the most points in judged and driving events like the Go-to-Whoa-a sub 8-second blast to a full stop down a 100-yard strip; the grass driving on the main arena; and the Top Sixty judged competition. Grand Champion contenders aren't expected to put their cars through the burnouts.
Go-to-Whoa action got under way early on Friday morning, but came to a sudden halt when a jammed-open throttle caused a GM Holden Torana to smack into the back of the fire truck at 60 mph. The driver jumped from his shattered car shaken, but in one piece. The debris was cleared and the Go-to-Whoa was quickly back on track.
After a hot Friday on the track and the streets, Australia's Top Sixty modified cars were unveiled in the main judging pavilion at 8 in the evening.
Shoebox Chevys were a big part of the Top Sixty. Nathan McFadden's '57 Bel Air coupe took the Top Authentic category; Anthony Fabris' '55 Bel Air coupe took Top Custom Classic honors; and the world's most powerful street car, Rod Hadfield's 1,650 cube '55 Chevy was the popular winner of the Top Pro Modified class.
Crowds queued passed Hadfield's wildly engineered five-five. The Guinness Book of Records' most powerful street car is motivated by a 3,000-horse V-12 Rolls Royce Merlin engine that came straight out of a WWII Mustang fighter plane. This street legal custom has fighter plane graphics and the cockpit inspired by the legendary aircraft.
All day Saturday and Sunday engines roared in the Horsepower Heroes Dyno Cell. On this Summernats stage, street-legal cars running pump gas are strapped into a caged dyno cell. With spectators stacked in the stands above, owners compete to find out who really has the most powerful machine.
Last year everyone was shocked when a Holden ute pushed the dials well beyond the 1,000hp mark and a rotary Mazda made 500 plus ponies in the new Sport Compact class. This year, three competitors in twin turbocharged V-8 GM Commodores came into Sunday morning's final with 1,100-plus horsepower. Eddie Tassone's gold 383-ci small-block powered Commodore eventually took the trophy with1,376 horsepower.
The Sun Smart Show and Shine for real street driven cars packed the main arena for most of Friday and all day Saturday. This class is more popular than ever because it allows everyday streetmachiners to show off their daily drivers. But despite the beauty of the cars, the crowd drifted towards the main stage at 3 in the afternoon when the Miss Summernats girls arrived for the final judging.
As the sun set on a hot Saturday evening, 30,000 people moved into the arena for the Supercruise. The best cars-and some of the not-so-good guys and girls-cruised for the crowd. The last time this got onto the streets it caused a riot, but these days it's happily contained with the rest of the Saturday night spectacle within the fences of Summernats cruise city.
Saturday night's fireworks went off after the Supercruise, and Aussie stunt man "Laurence the Legend" did the jump that even Evel Knievel wouldn't try-Laurence jumped the bus over the bikes! And this year he raised the stakes to a double-decker bus and 20 bikes.
The Go-to-Whoa final decided who would take the Summernats Grand Champion's sword on Sunday morning. After a split second decision, Mark Course and his Chevy-powered '32 Ford Coupe took the sword and a kiss from Miss Summernats, Hayley Walker, just ahead of Anthony Fabris in his '55 Chevy.
The win caused some debate because it was the first time a hot rod had taken the sword. But the huge crowd stacked into the stands didn't seem to care-they were waiting for the podium to be cleared so that the Burnout Final could get under way.
After 16 years some guys and girls have made a profession out of burning rubber. Big-block Camaro-driving Debbie Gray has achieved legendary status, leaving the boys in her smoking tracks with some of the best high-powered circle work ever seen at the Nats.
This year, Debbie and her husband Peter Gray, who competes in the same car, revamped their flat-black '68 Camaro with a new blown big-block, tubs and a fresh coat of black gloss. There was talk that this would be the year of the final showdown for the burnout big guns, and it was hard to pick a winner until the final run of the afternoon.
When Peter reached the donut pad in the still, hot conditions, the Camaro was making so much smoke you could hardly see it. Flashes of shiny new black paint showed through the thick white curtain as Mr. Gray performed a series of big-block-powered figure eights and spins that had the smoke-choked crowd cheering and coughing until his exploding tires scattered rubber and wire skyward. It was a popular victory-Rat-powered machines rule at the Summernats-especially when it's between a pair of real Bow-Tie fenders.
At the end of the event, all agreed that Chic's Summernats tune-up had worked. The crowd was back, around 110,000 people came through the gates; the cars were sensational; and according to the police, everyone was well behaved.
And while it is tempting to say that nothing this good can last forever, it's hard to see anything stopping this sensational event-so roll on Summernats 17 on the first Friday of 2004!