It wasn’t always like this, Don Santora told me. And it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The massive crowds, the traffic stops, the tickets, the towing. The bad reputation. H2O International, what was once just a big Volkswagen and Audi show, has become “the world’s most ticketed car show.”
“You only had one or two guys doing a burnout to show off, but today is much different,” he said. Indeed, a quick YouTube search will result in video after video of burnouts on public roads during H2Oi.
“You got people telling people, ‘we’re going down to party,’” Santora continued. “And that’s what people think you do: just go down to Ocean City and there are no rules. That’s what it’s turned into.”
Officially, H2Oi not happening this year. But according to multiple people Jalopnik spoke with, it won’t keep people from coming down to Ocean City to hang out with their fellow car enthusiasts.
What that event will look like this year, without H2Oi officially happening, remains to be seen.
For two decades now, as September faded into October and the last of the beachgoers retreated from Ocean City, MD, a different kind of crowd settled in. One that reveled in cars with cambered tires and underglow. Big wings and loud exhausts. Three-piece wheels.
When you saw these cars start rolling up and down Coastal Highway, then you knew: H2Oi was underway.
The atmosphere at this massive car show is open and inviting. It’s comprised of groups of different kinds of car enthusiasts coming together for about a week to hang out and soak up the automotive atmosphere. Make new friends. See old ones. Smoke some pot. Swap parts and ideas. Subarus share space with Audis that share space with BMWs that share space with Volkswagens that share space with Hondas.
Because why not? Summer’s just ended and fall’s around the corner. Too soon, people on the East Coast will be putting their cars away for the winter or prepping for the salt.
But the trend that emerged in recent years is that many of the stanced and lowered cars attending the event do not, according to police, adhere to Maryland’s vehicle safety standards. And some owners have a habit of showing off and doing burnouts. So cops can be seen posted on nearly every street corner, handing out citations.
We dubbed H2Oi “the most ticketed car show in America” when we went for a look last year because that’s exactly what we saw. Based off of posts uploaded to the now-deleted Instagram page @OCPDRollCall, it appeared that certain attendees of H2Oi regarded getting served a citation as a type of masochistic trophy.
Jalopnik Features Editor Raphael Orlove reported at the time:
If I were one for grand declarations, and I am, I’d call it the most ticketed car show in the country, if not the world. Take a single drive down the city’s main drag, Coastal Highway, and you’ll see a good four or five cars, at least, pulled over and getting cited.
And this is true day or night, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before even H2Oi officially starts on the weekend. Then, expect to see a good four or five cars getting pulled over on any drive longer than two blocks.
But old-timers are quick to remind people that this wasn’t how H2O always was. Far from it. And many of them aren’t happy with the reputation it has now.
When H2Oi first started, it was an Ocean City-sanctioned event, a show exclusively for Volkswagen and Audis where the cars were judged at the end and trophies were awarded. It was never held in Ocean City, but rather in a neighboring area.
In part, it was started to help build the VW and Audi community, to give those owners a safe, exclusive environment in which to display their cars.
Over time, the event grew. Attendees with all sorts of different cars started turning up. Santora, one of the owners and builders at Tuning Works, recalled that this is approximately where some of the problems began to happen.
Jamie Orr, a moderator for popular Volkswagen forum VWVortex who also helps connect H2Oi with the VW community, said it’s gotten to the point where downtown Ocean City gets taken over by gearheads. You can’t even get a hotel room. “That’s what makes this so magical for all marques,” he insisted.
Yet, he also admitted that within the last four or five years, it’s attracted a lot of people who might not even know there is an actual show—who think that cruising up and down and hanging out on Coastal Highway is the main attraction.
Because at some point along the way, H2Oi split into two events: the official VW and Audi show and the unsanctioned car meet, open to all, not sponsored by H2Oi and sprawling through Ocean City’s main drag. This meet is most likely what you think of when you think of H2Oi.
It’s here that you see the majority of the burnouts and the stunting and the ticketing. Here is where you’ll find the people who want the notoriety of getting a citation, the people who get a thrill from it. Orr insisted that this is not representative of what H2Oi started out to be.
This year’s event, according to event sponsors, has been postponed until 2018. But all this means is that the official H2Oi VW and Audi event won’t be happening. The ones who will make the journey, who had no intention of attending that event, will continue on, their plans unchanged.
Both Orr and Santora are certain that thousands of people will still turn up. (Indeed, a search of hotels in the area show that in the last weekend of September, when the event was to be held, many are close to full.)
The venue where the official event took place has changed over the years. Last year’s location changed hands and new zoning ordinances were put down, which prevented H2Oi from holding its event there again this year. Ultimately, the show was unable to secure a location in time and forced to cancel.
You have to wonder, though, if serious police concerns from past events factored into these new zoning rules. Ocean City has a history of car events, but recently, the death of a motorcyclist doing wheelies during the Crusin’ event in May 2016 seems to have local law enforcement on especially high alert.
Most everyone who attends H2Oi, whether it be the sanctioned or unsanctioned aspects of it, appear to only want to go and have a good time. They don’t wish to cause trouble for others. But because the unsanctioned arm of H2Oi has grown so large, it’s difficult to police, both internally and externally.
It’s not like the event itself hasn’t tried, either. A excerpt of a post written in 2015 on the official H2Oi Facebook page reads:
To the ones who think H2Oi is a “FREE_FOR_ALL” and no rules or laws exist while attending H2Oi and staying in OCMD - I hope to make this crystal clear… I don’t want you, the VW/Audi community doesn’t want you and Ocean City doesn’t want you! So please stay home if you cannot control yourself and act like normal, respectful adults.
What’s unfortunate is that this year, the original event was cancelled, while the public one will be in full swing in a couple of weeks.
According to Santora, there are only a handful of big Volkswagen events in the United States and H2Oi was the one that everybody was looking forward to most.
He’s still going—he has friends to see—but he’s disappointed.
Clearly, both Orr and Santora are in deep within the Volkswagen community. And as OG attendees of H2Oi (which, I suspect, also rings true for other veteran participants), there is a certain step-offism to the way they regard the newer, non-VW or Audi H2Oi-goers: that they were here first, and that there is a certain established decorum that they expect to be followed and respected.
The truth is that car culture belongs to everybody. That’s what makes it great and democratic.
But what happens to an event like this when it mutates far beyond what it originally started as, perhaps even beyond the point of control for everyone? And will the fact that H2Oi has been “cancelled” do anything to stem the inevitable citations and arrests in Ocean City? Do the newcomers owe anything to the people who started the event?
We’ll find out in a few weeks.