ACT News


Still (much) the same old story

With memories of this year's Summernats still fresh in our minds and the heady perfume of burnt rubber still in our nostrils here are some snapshots of a little of the event's Canberra history.

All aboard the time machine as we hurtle back to Easter, 1982 (Good Friday is April 9), where we find Mrs Thatcher's 27-ship battle fleet steaming righteously towards the Falklands, recently seized by impertinent Argentina. In Australia, prime minister Malcolm Fraser has just seen off by a haughty 54 votes to 27 Andrew Peacock's challenge to his leadership. In Canberra, which has a population of 230,000 the Starlight Drive-In at Watson is showing (starting at 11.45pm and screening to patrons in condensation-fogged cars) that soft-core classic The Ribald Adventures of Robin Hood.

Over this Easter weekend Canberra is attracting hordes of tourists and many of them are attending the first Canberra incarnation of what's become today's Summernats. The event is called the Fifth Australian Street Machine Nationals and this fifth one is an enlargement of the previous four that were held in Griffith (Easter 1975 and 1976), then Shepparton (Easter 1978) and then Narrandera (Easter 1980).

The news-ravenous Canberra Times was in 1982, as today, very grateful for the influx of what it called ''hot-rod enthusiasts''. They were a newsworthy bunch and the front page of Sunday 11th was shared by a story about the Falklands and another about how the previous night enthusiasts had gathered to watch drivers do ''burn-off wheelies'' from standing starts at Civic traffic lights.

Mixtures of those essential burn-off ingredients oil and petrol had been poured onto the intersection of Alinga Street and Northbourne Avenue. The Times published a picture of a Mr Stan Mikola, of the Department of Housing and Construction, spreading sand over the slither mixture, watched from the kerb by a cluster of good-natured, stubby-clutching trouble-makers.

This had happened the previous night, too, and so earlier on Saturday an anxious Chic Henry, the director of the Australian Street Machine Federation that had brought the bonanza to Canberra, used a loudspeaker to beg patrons at the showground to behave themselves so that the authorities would let them come back next year for a second use of Canberra's ''fantastic facilities''.


Overwhelmingly everyone did seem to behave. Police didn't arrest anyone at the Friday and Saturday night shenanigans in Civic and at the end of the Easter holidays the police reported arrest rates for the weekend had been ''about normal''. The event, while appalling some fogeys, had made a jolly good impression, ensuring it would be invited back again. The 1982 Easter weekend's influx of tourists to Canberra, 88,500, was a record (trouncing the previous, 1973, record of 75,000) and doing wonders for the ACT economy. The Street Machine Nationals had played a big part in this bonanza. One of its organisers, Mrs Doreen Henry, consort of the legendary Chic, rejoiced that ''I think Canberra will do pretty well out of this weekend.''

Back aboard the time machine. We sizzle to very early 1988 because this is the year when a Summernatseque event (in 1988 called the Street Machine Magazine Nationals) once an Easter thing becomes the New Year extravaganza that we know now.

Bob Hawke is the nation's prime minister and angry Aborigines are dogging his showpiece bicentenary-launch speeches to shout ''Shame!'' at him. There are 270,000 Canberrans now and they have the option of going to see E.T. at the Starlight Twin where, alas, there no longer seem to be late-night soft-porn screenings. Reg Daly Real Estate is offering a big home in what it calls ''O'Connor Heights'' for just $142,000.

One doubts that anyone from somewhere so snooty as O'Connor Heights came down from their loftiness to be at the National Exhibition Centre to see in the new year. But that had been, according to the Times, ''where to be''. The streets of the makeshift Street Machine township at the National Exhibition Centre ''were alive with revellers'' and the ''screeching rubber and smoking exhausts mingled with beer and song and the occasional obscenity''. The reporter saw how ''One startled police officer was greeted by a reveller with a hearty handshake and a 'Happy New Year, mate. I hate cops but you're OK.' ''

Those of us who attended Thursday's brief, tame, ruthlessly supervised 2013 Citycruise, notice wistfully that in 1988 there was an untamed ''supercruise''. Police warned Canberrans ''Don't get tangled up with the [night of Saturday, January 2] supercruise'' because it was going to be held along Northbourne Avenue from the National Exhibition Centre to London Circuit between about 7.30pm and 9pm and once you were entangled in it there'd be no way out till the melee was over.

The ensuing supercruise sounds as if it was terrific fun. Jeff Waters the man (the boy, really, because I was one of his colleagues in 1988 and was old enough even then to be his uncle) from the Times, called it ''the parade of the monsters''.

After the supercruise and back at the venue there was a politically incorrect, very 1980s tournament. The smooth-cheeked and boyish Waters (and one hopes he wasn't actually at the event to be placed in moral danger by it) reported that ''About 9pm Australian Federal Police at the National Exhibition Centre called for reinforcements as fears were held that the thousands of people who were crowded in the National Tally Room for a wet T-shirt competition could turn to violence.

''Some spectators, competing for a good view of the action on the stage, were injured as they stood on tables which could not support their weight.''

But yet again and overall the exuberant hooligans of 1988 seem to have left Canberra as they found it. Scarier by far was a shadowy, tree-hugging group calling itself the Forest Liberation Organisation. The day after the revheads left, the FLO newsworthily poisoned two of the greens at Royal Canberra Golf Club and threatened to poison the other 16 if the club didn't drop its plans to chop down 10 trees to make way for a driving range.


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