ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
(Sept. 28, 2012) This weekend, for the 13th consecutive year, Ocean City will continue its ad hoc and officially unacknowledged relationship with what may well be the most influential automotive event to hit the resort all year, at least in terms of the sway the gathering holds over the national and international community for the segment it represents.
But flying under the radar is characteristic not only of the event itself, but the market it caters to. And that’s exactly what its organizers are going for.
“I hope the local entrepreneurs see it that way and can appreciate it,” said H2O International promoter Jay Shoup. “We’ve never asked for anything from the city or anyone else, and we don’t intend to, but we’ve promoted Ocean City for years.”
“[The people we bring in] have to eat, drink, stay somewhere, buy gas. Their money is as green as everyone else’s.”
A graphic designer who lives in Ocean Pines, Shoup has been holding the car show – billed on its Web site as “the ‘laidback’ 2-day water-cooled VW/Audi event” – for 15 years. The first two events took place in Connecticut, where Shoup knew a core group of VW club members. When the show grew, he moved it closer to home. The next 11 events were held at Ocean Downs, and last year’s rally was on land owned by Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School. This year’s event will be at the Fort Whaley Campground.
Despite having no official connection to the resort, the rally has expanded into Ocean City’s hotels and roads by default.
“The majority of people are going to stay in OC,” Shoup said. “It’s actually turned into more of a VW and Audi week as opposed to a weekend … we have ‘early bird’ get-togethers on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday as well.”
H2O International takes the automotive niche market to its logical extreme. The rally is exclusive to the family of small, water-cooled engines developed by Volkswagen and Audi beginning in the early 1970s and continuing up through today. It is a trait that most passing motorists are likely unaware of amongst the swarms of passing Jettas and Passats.
What’s more, enthusiasts generally regard water-cooled VWs as the late-coming runts of the litter. The classic VW Boxer engine — air-cooled and sporting the distinctive opposed-cylinder design first developed by Ferdinand Porsche in the 1930s — are the ones collectors drool over. The water-cooled, inline-cylinder motors hit the USA in 1974 to combat similar, high-efficiency designs being pushed by the Japanese, and the stink of modern utility has limited their collectability.
But some enthusiasts repair and restore the very oldest models – Shoup said that he was expecting a 1975 VW Rabbit in this year’s show – while others take newer cars and tune them into street-racers. The appeal is ambiguous.
“It’s just like the Corvettes. Why does everyone love Corvettes?” Shoup said. “It’s just what you’re interested in. There’s not one particular reason for anyone to be ‘into it’ or not.”
And the “sleeper” status only adds to the level of knowledge and attention to detail given by the owners, so much that Shoup says VW itself has caught on and begun to use rallies like H2O as testing grounds for feedback on its latest designs, essentially “crowd-sourcing” its engineering.
“VW corporate comes and they set up a huge, 75-foot rig with carriers that have all the concept cars,” Shoup said. “We even have someone shipping over the brand-new Sirocco.” VW’s revival of the original 1974-1988 hatchback coupe has been extremely popular in Europe, but is so far unavailable in North America, although rumors swirl that it will be coming stateside for 2013.
“It’s a pretty big deal as far as the industry goes,” Shoup continued. “It’s becoming the norm now where a lot of the dealerships are ‘tuner-friendly,’ so to speak.”
As far as Shoup can tell, the H2O International is the third-largest event of its kind, with the biggest being held in VW’s Austrian fatherland. A barbecue and music festival will be held on Saturday, with actual judging of cars and awards on Sunday. A thousand show cars are registered, along with 50 to 60 vendors. Shoup expects around 8,000 people, both car owners and spectators.
“They essentially come from all over the world,” he said. “We have vendors who will ship in crates from Germany, caravans that will come literally crosscountry. We had one group from Seattle last year. Usually, they’ll run 20 to 30 cars deep and just drive across the country, just for the show. It’s pretty insane.”
Popularity does not come without its pitfalls, however. Last year, the driving range across from Most Blessed Sacrament, which Shoup had planned to use for overflow parking, flooded.
“The driving range across the street from the school, where we had originally wanted to have all the spectator parking, turned into a mud hole, and these cars are not built to go through mud,” Shoup said.
The resulting traffic snarl forced the Maryland State Police to block the exit ramp from Route 90 to Route 589 in order to flush out a backup that stretched to Ocean City. Shoup says he has similar contingencies in place with local authorities again this year.
“I’m always in close contact with the state police and the SHA [State Highway Administration], we’ve met a couple of times so far,” Shoup said. “We meet prior to [the event] and we have an exit meeting after. The county sheriff’s department usually comes out and sits in too.”
This year may present less of an issue, however, as Sunfest and the H2O International will not coincide for the first time in three years.
“Every year, our event is always on the very last weekend of September. Unfortunately, sometimes the calendar closes up, and the past three years Sunfest was on our weekend,” Shoup said.
“We had the older crowd versus the younger crown and it didn’t mesh. But I think this year is going to be good because the calendar opened back up.”
Shoup also stressed that the event does not just take advantage of the resort area, it also gives back. He estimated that over the past five years, when the rally has been really large, $45,000 of event proceeds has been donated to local, national, and even international charities. Last year, $6,500 went to Most Blessed Sacrament.
“It’s a pretty big chunk to throw out locally,” Shoup said.
And the boon to the city’s tourism, on a weekend that would otherwise be quiet, is invaluable as well.
“All of my clientele is coming in from out of town,” Shoup said. “They love to come down, think it’s a beautiful area.”