H2O International a two-day VW/Audi rally fills Ocean City with import cars.
H2O International drivers left their mark on Ocean City last weekend.
The black scars of burnt rubber along Coastal Highway outline the playground for car enthusiasts who arrived in droves, mostly manning heavily modified Audis and Volkswagens.
But the actions of what police officials called a “majority” of visitors associated with the popular H2Oi car show have struck a nerve with locals and town leaders.
Discussions on “extreme measures,” including restricting Coastal Highway, went into high gear as soon as the drivers left town.
Mayor Rick Meehan said “all options are on the table,” as the Town Council rolled through ideas during Monday's meeting.
“We’re going to need to restrict our highway," he said. "If we have to reduce our traffic lanes and restrict the flow of traffic and stall them in their spots to take the fun out of it, then I think that’s what we should do.”
The short-term disruption for locals and businesses might be preferred, Meehan said.
“I think we all know we will have to take extreme measures in order to discourage this event from coming," he said.
H2Oi, an event not sanctioned by the town, was officially canceled this year but that didn’t dissuade attendees who flocked to the resort.
Drivers joined together in an H2Oi Facebook group with 35,000 members to organize their amusement in the downtown area.
The event name "H2O" references modern-era Volkswagens and Audis that are water-cooled, rather than air-cooled.
Jay Shoup, the founder and promoter of H2Oi, did not respond to a request for comment.
Ocean City is no stranger to large crowds at events. The town welcomes multiple weeklong car shows and motorcycle events during the shoulder season, in the two months before and after the busy summer tourism season. But this particular group and event are indelibly tied to young adults in modified cars who enjoy intersection burnouts and parking lot doughnuts.
Law enforcement conducted more than 1,200 traffic stops and made 78 arrests from Thursday to Sunday, including one that ended with charges of attempted first- and second-degree murder in a case that police said endangered the lives of two law enforcement officers.
An Ocean City police cruiser also hit a pedestrian while turning left from 56th Street during a green light while a 26-year-old man was in the crosswalk. The Connecticut man was released from hospital the following day.
Background: Driver hit two officers with car in Ocean City
Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro acknowledged in a Monday statement that there were a handful of people who showed up to enjoy the weekend but said many of the visitors had been unruly.
"It was very discouraging, to say the least, to see the amount of destruction to our town and the appalling behavior of many visitors," Buzzuro said.
Raphael Orlove doesn't agree with the town's assessment. The 27-year-old is an automotive culture reporter from New York City who spent the weekend documenting the action in Ocean City.
He believes the attendees' behavior is being made to look worse than it actually was.
“I never got the feeling that what was going on was extremely dangerous,” he said.
Orlove said he'd seen car events that have gotten out of control in the past; disorganized events with no police presence, crowds doing doughnuts in the street and pedestrians struck by cars.
“I saw none of that at H2Oi," Orlove said.
Dewey Cassler of Ocean City saw the weekend through a much different lens.
In his youth, Cassler, now gray-haired, would drag race with his friends, he confessed. But he argues his actions, while still illegal, were done in a safer manner than what he experienced this weekend on Coastal Highway.
To Cassler, it stands as the worst of all events that come to Ocean City.
"The vibe is just so much different from Bike Week," he said. "Sure, you have the noise and traffic in common, but with the bikers you see more respect, more money coming in, less over-drinking and just less trouble in general."
The competing philosophies of locals and officials against the opinions of event attendees are at the heart of whether H2Oi should be eradicated — or if it's even possible to do so.
On the balcony of a 56th Street condo, a megaphone echoed to the people and cars below.
"Send it," the youthful voice commanded to cheers from friends perched high on the deck alongside him.
The drivers obliged, spinning their tires until smoke formed, which only brought on more cheers. Elsewhere in Ocean City, the scene mimicked itself. Crowds gathered on street corners, their phones ready to capture the next car to race down Coastal Highway.
"I Love OCPD" was taped to one car. Bottles of empty beer littered the side streets on Monday.
It was the culmination of a weekend of rowdy behavior that brought the words "appalling" and "unruly" to the lips of town and police leaders.
But Orlove thinks there's a gross misunderstanding about what happened over the weekend.
Admittedly, this year's H2Oi was "even crazier," according to Orlove's recap on car enthusiasts' website Jalopnik, but the gathering isn't about acting unruly, he said.
"There's something weird that I think brings a lot of people to the event," he said. "It’s not just the cars, it’s the whole atmosphere. Just all these cars — four out of every five are modified — and it’s sort of an alternate universe where everyone thinks like you, and that’s the draw."
From Orlove's perspective, most of the drivers were young car enthusiasts with few vacation days. Many spent just as much time connecting with friends as they did boasting about their cars.
That's why Orlove thinks it was not a majority that caused problems, but a minority whose behavior was exacerbated by specific circumstances.
There was no organization or structure after the H2Oi event was canceled.
"I wish there had been an official show where people could gather legally," he said. "That’s something I heard a lot, was people wishing for the same thing, but all they had to do was go on the streets."
Most of the municipal parking lots were closed, he said — blocked by town buses sitting end to end — and drivers were pushed onto Coastal Highway.
“The more people you cluster together, the more you start to get a rambunctious atmosphere,” he said.
Once everyone was packed in the downtown, the 15-seconds-of-fame mentality came into play.
The thrill of people-watching, especially via social media tweets, posts and snaps, only fuels misbehavior, said Jenn Mackay, an associate professor of communications at Virginia Tech.
“Once you have almost-live imagery and video being posted it just adds to the excitement of being part of something," Mackay said.
Videos uploaded to the H2Oi Facebook group, as well as the popular Ocean City Locals page, showed much of the activity that displeased the town. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat were also filled with the scenes of the weekend.
But social media was also where some H2Oi attendees apologized to locals.
Justin Desmarais, who traveled from Ontario, Canada, posted a sincere message on behalf of others.
"Not all of us are bad," he wrote. "Sorry for the idiots, I am starting my 12-hour drive home and look forward to next year."
It was well-received from many of the nearly 500 commenters from the Ocean City area.
Another Facebook commenter, Charles Magathan of Frankford, Delaware, said he was a fan of the H2Oi event, but called the atmosphere "near riot conditions."
But what will happen next year is what worries Nadine Horsey most.
A West Ocean City resident and manager at the Northside Pit and Pub at 128th Street, she served many locals who voiced their frustration.
She said the complaints were about the noise and screeching tires and visitors in shock of the huge police presence on Coastal Highway.
She sensed a helplessness over how to deal with the event after it was canceled.
"So how do you stop a group that's going to show up no matter what?" she asked. "I have an 18-year-old stepson. If you tell him 'Stay out,' that isn't going to stop him.
"It'll probably just make him want to come even more."
Challenge of a digital world
Much like College Beach Weekend, another unsanctioned Ocean City event that brings throngs of young people to town and creates headaches for locals and officials, preventing H2Oi — even after its cancellation — is something with which town leaders grapple.
Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, have given people a way to self-organize events, which is as easy and effective as it is difficult to police.
Dissuading unsanctioned events is far more difficult in today’s digital age than it was only a decade ago, Councilman John Gehrig pointed out.
“It’s kind of the world in which we live with social media,” he said. “We see the power of social media, and blessings are often curses sometimes.”
H2Oi is similar to “flash mobs,” said Mackay, the communications professor.
Flash mobs are typically benign events, she said, where groups coordinate online to assemble in a given place at a given time, often for artistic or satirical purposes.
After H2Oi was canceled, attendees organized meetups on social media that were challenging for authorities to track. It was a strategy used by protesters during Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, Mackay said, when leaderless movements tracked police movement and gave alerts about where to meet.
“There’s so much social media that it’s hard for police to watch all of it at once,” Mackay said. “It’s difficult to predict, it’s widespread, and it creates real challenges for them."
At Monday's Town Council meeting, Councilman Wayne Hartman said there weren’t easy answers as to how to dissuade or dull the event, and asked the community to come forward with their ideas.
“I can tell you one thing — I think the long-term impact to the reputation of Ocean City is more expensive than the short-term loss of revenue that’s brought here by events like this,” Hartman said. “As a councilperson that’s seen that type of activity in town, it’s embarrassing”
For Councilman Dennis Dare, the fine line the town must walk is figuring out how to manage unsanctioned events without impacting those sanctioned, desirable events such as Bike Week.
“One of the things is we haven’t figured out how to throw away the dirty bathwater without throwing the baby with it,” he said. “The bathwater are those that don’t have any respect or obey the law.
“They’re the ones you’re seeing more and more of, and they’re the ones that create the issues we saw last weekend.”
On Twitter @ReedAShelton