(Oct. 4, 2013) As the name would indicate, Volkswagen is definitely the people’s car.
At least it was this past weekend in the resort, as swarms of the automobiles gathered in the area for the H2O International car show, an event that, while taking place outside of the city limits, has become popularly associated with Ocean City whether the resort likes it or not.
But while the show is an unsolicited affair, many local businesses are reporting a more profitable and less unruly weekend than in years past, likely because of intensive enforcement by the Ocean City Police Department.
“We had a stronger weekend with the VWs than we did with bike week,” said Drew Davis, manager of the 45th Street Taphouse. “Honestly, I think it went better. We were able to control it better.”
“We definitely had an enormous crowd,” said Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones. “Out of the members I’ve talked to, it depends on the type of restaurant as to how well they did.”
“Pizza shops, breakfast places, things like that had a huge weekend,” Jones said. “I would say the less expensive places fared best. This was definitely not a filet mignon crowd.”
According to data provided by the Ocean City Police Department, police conducted 1,245 traffic stops from Thursday, Sept. 26 to Sunday, Sept. 29. This is 62.5 percent more traffic enforcement than the 766 stops done over the same span in 2012.
Total service calls came to 2,207, versus 1,658 last year, a 33 percent increase. However, the vast majority of these calls, 1,786, were officer-initiated. Citizen complaints accounted for 421 calls, a modest increase over the 361 during the same span in 2012.
But this number is not out of line with any other busy weekend. For instance, the Thursday-through-Sunday span before Labor Day, Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, 2013, saw 506 citizen calls.
Although the OCPD has clearly been stepping up its enforcement, the sudden appearance of VWs in the resort for the last weekend of September is by no means a new occurrence.
The influx centers on the H2O International, or H2Oi, as patrons commonly abbreviate it, a car show held in the resort area for its 14th year in 2013. The first 11 shows were held at Ocean Downs, according to event organizer Jay Shoup. The event was then moved to grounds owned by Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School, although this caused problems given the school’s poor drainage and the wet weather of the 2011 event. Last year’s show, as well as this year’s, was staged at the Fort Whaley Campground.
Shoup could not be reached for comment this year. However, before the event last year, he confirmed that event attendance has been growing and that the show has, he believes, developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the town given the number of hotels and restaurants patronized by H2Oi attendees.
Further, the 2012 event did not coincide with Sunfest as it had in years past – a schedule he expected to aid both events by avoiding the obvious conflict between his show’s predominantly younger crowd and Sunfest’s largely older one.
Again this year, the H2Oi occurred the weekend after Sunfest. Given that 2014 Sunfest dates have already been set for the next-to-last weekend in September, it is likely that next year’s programs will also not conflict.
The H2Oi itself is only a Saturday-Sunday event. However, the culture surrounding the show has grown far outside of Shoup’s purview. Many attendees arrive almost a week in advance, and third-party promoters hold their own events in the days leading up to the H2Oi proper.
Many of these spin-off events, sponsored by VW-centric brands or clubs not associated with Shoup’s show, are held on lots in the resort without the property owner’s explicit permission and publicized discreetly.
Several spin-off shows, for instance, were advertised via social media and online VW discussion forums as taking place at Roses’s on 94th Street, despite the store itself knowing nothing about it.
“We don’t host them or anything, they just congregate here for some reason,” a Rose’s employee said.
At 45th Street, Davis said the Taphouse had an agreement with a third-party promoter to use the parking lot on Thursday or Friday, with the recognition that the cars would likely show up whether the restaurant was prepared for them or not.
“There were more of them, and they came earlier,” Davis said. “We hired security and everything we needed to have those two nights go smoothly, which I think they did. It would’ve been chaos otherwise.”
Promoters have also approached the city about using the convention center parking lot for H2Oi-associated events.
“We’ve been asked several times at the beginning of every year about holding a car show that weekend at the convention center,” said Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino. “Whether those promoters are part of the show at Fort Whaley, or are independent, was never made clear to me.”
These proposals have been rejected, Noccolino said, given that the facility already has long-standing events such as the Gem, Mineral, and Jewelry Show taking place that weekend.
“Those events already generate a lot of traffic for us. They’ve been with us for a while and there’s no doubt they’ll continue,” Noccolino said. “I don’t see the possibility that we could ever rent the lot to a car show without displacing the sure-fire events that we already have.”
“To take the lot, you have to take the majority of the building, because it’s impotent with no parking,” said Convention Center Sales Director Fred Wise.
However, much as with other locations around town, it was nearly impossible to keep the cars out. The convention center lot was cleared of loitering vehicles five times in 24 hours, Noccolino said, twice on Friday and three times on Saturday.
“They were very nice about it and not combative when we asked them to leave,” Noccolino said. “But as soon as you’d kick them out, more would show up.”
H2O International takes the automotive niche market to its logical extreme. The rally is exclusive to the family of small, water-cooled engines first introduced by Volkswagen and Audi to the US in 1974 to combat similar, high-efficiency designs being pushed by the Japanese.
Despite not having the collector value of Beetles and other air-cooled, Boxer-engine designs, the modern Volkswagen has developed a cult following amongst tuning enthusiasts for its reliable adaptability and ease of performance.
However, the culture of second-hand modification is highly susceptible to trends, not all of which are practical. Unsafe or illegally modified vehicles have been heavily targeted by law enforcement.
“I know the big issue this year was camber,” said OCPD Public Affairs Specialist Lindsay O’Neal. “That was a trend that popped up this year that we knew we wanted to address.”
Camber refers to the angle of a vehicle’s tires relative to a perfect vertical plane. Most cars, with their suspension at rest, have no perceptible camber angle. But installing shorter shock absorbers in a vehicle not made for them will pivot the wheels up via their connection to the car’s frame, creating what is known as “negative camber.”
Maryland law prohibits what it refers to as “excessive camber,” something that is plainly visible when traveling behind a car whose tires appear to be flared out at an extreme angle. This reduced the contact area of the rubber to the road, decreasing traction and increasing the likelihood of skids.
“It’s really dangerous,” O’Neal said. “It was a big problem to the point where we actually towed some people because we didn’t want them getting back into busy traffic with their car set up like that.”
OCPD officers also pulled over cars to check for violations such as headlight height – a 24-inch minimum in Maryland, which many lowered VWs do not meet – or excessive stickers blocking the driver’s view.
Despite, or likely because of, the heavy OCPD enforcement, Jones said HMRA establishments found this year’s larger crowd to be somewhat easier to deal with than previous years.
“In years past, I’ve had hotel owners say that their rooms were ripped up, fixtures torn out and stuff like that,” Jones said. “But I even called a couple of them who had complained in the past, and they said their guests were well-behaved this year.”
Still, many locals have complained to City Hall, and this newspaper, about the traffic scenario caused by H2Oi, which made Coastal Highway nearly impassable through most of the day Saturday. One resident alleged that he was profiled by the OCPD for driving a German-made car, despite being a recognized businessman likely three times the average age of show attendees.
“I’ve asked for more data from the police, and that will be distributed to the whole council as well as Mr. Recor [City Manager David Recor],” said City Councilman and Recreation and Parks Commission Chair Joe Mitrecic.
However, Mitrecic said he doubted there was anything different that the town could do to handle the event.
“The bottom line is that it’s not a city-sponsored event,” he said. “The only thing we can do is to try to keep everybody safe while they’re here and make sure the rules aren’t broken.”