May 23, 2009
The Canberra Times

Summernats? Get it off

There’s a beaut line in the film Annie Hall, when Rob, who’s just moved to LA, is taking Alvy and Annie on a car tour of the ritzy Beverly Hills. Rob loves the place and can’t stop boasting its charms. “And the women, Max, they’re like the women out of Playboy magazine, only they can move their arms and legs.”

Annie laughs. But Alvy groans. He comments on the absurd architecture, and its mish-mash of pretentious style.

Fast-forward, and this could be a scene in Canberra, as a bunch of excited blow-ins motor down Northbourne Avenue in early January, here for the National Capital’s biggest spectacle of the year – Summernats.

Out there at EPIC the women are also like Playboy Bunnies, but without the ears and the air-brushing. They’re a little more earthy, a little more dusty and dirty. Their arms and legs certainly move. Arms go up as tops come off. And those legs strut, stretch and sprawl.

But while Woody Allen’s take on bare-breasted bimbos who can walk and talk always makes me laugh, the Summernats real-life versions never do.

It’s an odd thing to stand in the crowd watching the Miss Summernats contestants purr to the chanting mob, and listening to the pudgy young boy beside me yell “show us ya tits”. It was even odder to hear his mate call out “Ah, ya stink down there”. Odd because the women on stage, with the arms and legs that moved, were lapping it up. They were smiling, waving, and smiling some more. An odd response to vicious insults.

Later, backstage, with the crowned winner alongside Miss Second and Third, it was fascinating to learn that the women felt adored. Flapping the sort of eyelashes that would make a drag queen proud, Miss Third told me that all that adoration was good for her self-esteem and “personal development”. She was dead serious. “It makes you feel beautiful when everyone is calling out.” The fact that they were shouting at her to get her gear off didn’t seem to be a problem. Miss Third thought that was “Just all part of it”.

And she’s right. Lewd, bawdy and bad behaviour is part of Summernats. It’s famed for its celebration of topless girls and tit action. Girls who have perhaps never stripped in public before suddenly turn into breast-flashers, goaded by mobs of blokes who trawl the grounds looking for signs of skimpy clothing. The standard greeting is “get it off!”. And women do. Repeatedly.

Last year the drunken mob chant of “tits or rubber” got so loud and overbearing that the Miss Summernats parade was halted – for a moment.

For newcomers to Canberra who venture out to Exhibition Park, drawn by the “family fun” publicity, Summernats can be quite a shock. It’s rough, tough and dirty. You’ve got to watch where you walk, and where you look. It may be billed as a “Mecca for the totally committed revhead” but you’ll get plenty more than screeching tyres and low-slung cars.

In fact, what you get is a hyped-up mob on heat, dizzy with petrol fumes and sexual tease. Some come for the cars, others for the publicly sanctioned smut fest. All here to have fun in the Canberra sun.

Just how Summernats made its way into the national capital’s social events schedule is hard to fathom. Canberrans are proud libertarians. But is endorsing an event like Summernats an expression of liberty verging on stupidity?

This week we heard that Summernats is up for sale. Its popular and hard-working chief, Chic Henry, says he’s keen to keep the event in Canberra. And why not? The ACT Government has generously supported the car-fest for years, and watched it pump money back into the local economy.

While Summernats’ reputation as a misogynisticMecca has grown, and the crowds swelled, no Canberran has dared stand in the way. Or in judgment.

Perhaps now is the time.

Chieftain Chic knows he’s long been on to a good thing here in Canberra. He’s well aware that the heady cocktail of hot cars and girls can be a recipe for deep trouble.

This week on his offical blog, Chic thanked his lucky stars that Summernats is in recess right now, given the current media attack on sex- crazed footballers: “Thank goodness we aren’t just about to open the gates at this time. The media would be on my case.”

He sounds a warning to his patrons. “Boys there are women who will nail us for everything that sounds like the slightest sexist remark or sign of disrespect of women” (sic). Then, reflecting a befuddled morality, Chic makes the following observation: “We have all done stupid stuff in our lives, but we live in dangerous times made worse with the invention of camera phones.”

Perhaps for some, the greatest danger in life is getting caught on camera.

In closing, Chic insists, “Summernats cannot be compared”. He’s right. But it can be cleared out of town.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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