Hale March 18 Masthead

When Summernats divides a household

Emma Macdonald and Paul Chamberlin

Emma Macdonald and Paul Chamberlin have been happily married for nearly 20 years.

This is despite having vastly different opinions on Canberra’s annual car festival.


I am about as loyal and loving of Canberra as you can get. Until the first week of January, when you will find me desperate to escape the acrid smoke of burnouts and the constant drone of bogan machines doing endless laps of Northbourne Avenue.

Summernats = get me out of here.

I’m all for local tourism, and I love anything that draws the rest of the nation to our sparkling city, our esteemed national institutions, our cultural centres of excellence. But those car-loving hoons and their noisy, over-tuned V8s setting up a shanty town at Exhibition Park are not what I had in mind.

It’s like an invasion of the worst kind. An invasion of mainly young men who devote their hours to the mindless pursuit of motors. They descend on this city every year in a testosterone-fuelled lout-fest where they alternate their attention between getting smashed, and seeing how much rubber they can burn out before their vehicle actually catches on fire.

Their attitude to women leaves a lot to be desired. “Show us your tits?” Frankly, mate, I’d rather run over your feet in my plain and safety-rated European sedan.

As a usually contented inhabitant of the Inner North, I start to question my choice of suburbs. We are within hearing distance of EPIC when the wind picks up and some nights the constant mindless revving can become more annoying than a room full of mozzies.

Then there are the actual street races that wake the neighbourhood, me and my kids. Clearly these guys don’t give a damn, and that’s what really irks me.

It can be intimidating to visit my local shops where, surprise surprise, the Summernats crowds cause a run on the three food groups of white bread, sausages and tomato sauce. They descend on the beef fridges like locusts. I’ve been jeered at and intimidated because I am a woman. I would think twice about a late-night dash to Dickson Woollies.

I know plenty of people love Summernats, probably nearly as many as those who loathe it and at least it leads to some spirited debates about our local identity and whether we really do live in a bubble.

But what’s worse is that my husband will tease me relentlessly about the sights and the sounds. You see, I married a hoon. He loves cars almost as much as he loves me, and together, this week, we will walk a finely-balanced line of marital tolerance. He will tolerate my nose in the air and clear contempt of those who besmirch my beloved Lonsdale Street in Braddon with their petrol-headed ways.

And I will tolerate his delight at seeing a six-metre pink 1959 Cadillac de Ville Whateverthehell parked outside Grease Monkey.

I guess for the rest of the weekend I am going to have to live and let live. With earplugs.


Okay, here’s two things you need to know about me.

My first car was a SLR Torana with racing stripes. And every car since MUST be quicker in the dash to 100 km/h than the one it replaces.

So it won’t surprise you to read that I think Summernats is just what staid old Canberra needs every year. If you think last year was the worst 12 months in history, as many bizarrely seem to do, then what better way of starting afresh and blowing away the bad vibes than with a massive blast of volcanic horsepower, the pungent aroma of burning rubber and the banshee cries of fanatical car lovers?

Yes, it’s loud. Yes, Northbourne Avenue resembles a parking lot at certain times. Some of the boys get grubbier than they should with their toys and their signs. The politically correct might find more than a few aspects, especially late at night, to be rather confronting. A lot of this isn’t my scene.

But beneath is a subculture of people passionate about something – their cars. They care. They love. They have high octane and Meguiars polish running through their veins. And they look awfully more like the rest of the country than the inhabitants of the bright, beautiful bubble of Canberra.

My advice is simple – if you don’t understand their fascination with horsepower, ask them about it. You’ll mostly get an interesting conversation, laced with warmth and good humour. It’s beautiful to see three or more generations of a family fussing proudly over a much-loved vehicle that was probably bought new by the oldest member.

This is advice I regularly give my wife, and as far as I know for an always curious journalist, she’s never taken me up on it.

Just for a few days every year, a sizable chunk of real Australia comes to the capital. We often complain the other 23.7 million don’t understand us or blame “Canberra” for every national ill. Here’s our chance to extend the hand of friendship across a Chev 350 donk.


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author


Paul Chamberlin

Paul Chamberlin is a car-loving former journalist turned political advisor, turned lobbyist. He came to Canberra from Sydney on a three-month assignment. But that was 26 years ago. He is happily married despite the tensions that inevitably arise when Summernats hits town and he has two gorgeous kids. More about the Author

  • Helene Jermolajew

    A very interesting read, the ‘argument’ in your article is a conversation I’ve been having with people since I discovered Summernats in the early 1990’s. My personal love for cars started with Dad’s beautiful 1948 Humber super Snipe, leather seats wooden dash! Then there was riding in the back of the International truck, there was only room for 2 in the cabin so we three kids were in the back. As the only girl (apart from Mum) I had to hold my own with two brothers and a Dad. My love of cars only grew as years went by, thanks to husband #1 panel beater/mechanic I became a Holden addict and was introduced to the whole idea of modifying cars (the EH became an HQ every now and again with a bolt on front). Then I had two sons and I was excited that I could take them to car events. I am still upset about the closing of the drag strip, that was wonderful entertainment for younger son and me. (I have a whole argument with reasons other than entertainment for the need of a motorsports complex in Canberra.) Along the way Summernats was the car event to which I could take my boys and share the excitement. An event where they could wonder about the incredible machines they were seeing, be exhilarated by burnouts, noise, smoke and the beauty of bodywork on the cars and I had a great excuse to be there with them. The museums, galleries, flower shows and National everything that Canberra has are great, we have a beautiful city surrounded by nature, we are close to the mountains and the beach but….. that’s not all there is. Those things entertain only part of the community, there is a whole other part that is interested in things mechanical, like cars. Summernats is pretty much the only event we have these days that entertains the car community. Every year this conversation comes up, there will always be the nay sayers, there will also always be the ‘bogan’ element but in the main Summernats is for the car enthusiasts both present and future may it continue forever and keep bringing in the millions of dollars every year.

    P.S. Today’s City Cruise marking the start of Summernats was a well organised wonderful introduction to the weekend and a chance for those who can’t go to the main event to see the cars. I thought that the light rail works would create chaos but quite the reverse, the cement bollards provided seating, thousands of people lined Northbourne and enjoyed the cruise in an orderly manner, what a wonderful beginning. Yes, there are many women who love Summernats.

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