Last year, I attended the ‘unofficial’ H2oi in Ocean City, Maryland for the first time. What I witnessed that weekend in person and through social media from a distance disheartened and upset me, but it was only a fraction of what that ‘event’ offered. I also found incredible people, true down-to-earth enthusiasts, with the spirit and attitude you’d hope to find in any thriving community. I was welcomed by H2oi regulars, offered a bed and guidance into the fantasy world that is Ocean City, and thoroughly enjoyed myself despite some of the activities that took place around us. However, this year, my experience was completely different. I joined the same friends who hosted me last year: Dan, Trace, Ty, and Mongo, but the atmosphere on the strip at the ‘show’ itself was something alien, even with my limited experience there at H2oi. Join me this week as we look back at H2oi and what I see the future of this multi-decade mainstay in the car community might look like. 

Just like last year, I followed the updates from Ocean City through social media to gauge this year’s vibe. Unlike last year, I noticed a severely limited amount of posts and information from attendees. It felt like no one planned to make the trip, as sparse posts from Ocean City trickled into my social feeds from enthusiasts already at the beach. Even Thursday morning as I packed up to leave for the nine-hour drive, I could hardly find any hints as to what I could expect to see except the two or three cars who had posted about receiving hefty fines or impounded vehicles. Watching the OCMD traffic cameras, I didn’t see any modified cars, or police, cruising the strip. Nothing like last year’s ten-mile traffic jams that had already begun by the time I set out on Thursday morning. I had a feeling that the crowds would likely be thinner this year and arriving much later, if at all. 

When I pulled into the Fenwick, Delaware side of the island where my hosts’ beach house is situated, I was only accompanied by a single Mazdaspeed 3. Last year, driving the same route at the same time, I was welcomed into the city in a flotilla of tuner cars all revving with anticipation and cruising together into town. The quiet calm seemed almost eerie, like sneaking into enemy territory alone with only the provisions I carried to sustain myself. The lack of loud exhausts, squealing tires, and filled lots on the north side of the island confirmed my initial suspicions that no one had arrived yet if they were coming at all. 

The following morning, we saddled up our little convoy and headed into town for a quick car wash before the Coffee Beanery annual Friday cars and coffee. As we pulled into the same car wash from the year before, we were happy to see a few fellow enthusiasts detailing their cars, but nothing like the overflowing lot in 2020. An Acura NSX and Z33 350z were already there, with a few other cars sporadically flowing in and out of the wash bays, but it still felt rather empty. Driving to the Coffee Beanery was a quick event as well, thanks to the lack of traffic. We effortlessly made our way into Ocean City without more than a few red lights and a handful of cars around us. Our initial expectations seemed verified even as we pulled into the lot.

A small number of police cruisers patiently patrolled the half-full parking lot while the attendees that had already arrived in Ocean City calmly perused the hundred or so cars that flowed in and out of the Coffee Beanery. It wasn’t anything like the bursting at the seams attendance from last year, but the attitude and atmosphere were likely the most different. It was, and there is no other word for it, silent. I quickly noticed there was a complete lack of tire smoke, two-stepping, or even just chanting crowds. There wasn’t fear or shaking anticipation in the air, it was similar to what you’d expect at a local cars and coffee event in Anytown, USA. Just a few hundred enthusiasts enjoying coffee, flawless weather, and some fairly respectable cars. 

Even after a few hours, the police were nothing but complacent. No one egged them on, no one demonstrated a lack of maturity, it was exclusively respectful and polite behavior from both sides. The police allowed us to stay as long as we wanted, they even let us leave our cars in the ACME and Coffee Beanery lot to walk across the street for an early lunch. The crowd was placid, as were the police, without a single confrontation that we experienced during the several hours we spent just hanging around the lot. It wasn’t until the Coffee Beanery closed that afternoon that the police began riding through to let us know we had to go somewhere else, and even that was completely benign. They weren’t waiting with traps at the exits of the lot like last year, they weren’t blasting on megaphones yelling at us, and they weren’t spraying that awful crowd control mist, either. Just casually informing us that the lot was closed and we could come back the next morning when they re-opened. We all complied and filed out of the lot.

It was then that the true emptiness of Ocean City hit us. Even with all of us leaving en-masse, the streets were still rather open. What took over an hour last year to vacate the lot happened in a matter of minutes. All of us easily found parking on the side streets between the lower 50s and high 20s. We sat on the sidewalk for an hour or so, which hinted at a lack of cars, while the parking availability confirmed that there just wasn’t a large presence, even by Friday afternoon. With the Ocean City still fairly empty, we decided to hang out on the lower streets until after dark, as the rest of our crew weren’t expected to arrive until much later. So, we stuck around to see if more cars would cruise in that night.

To some degree, our patience paid off. The strip’s modified to stock car ratio gradually tipped in favor of the former, but it was nothing like the ten-mile gridlock of tuner cars from years past. You could hear the occasional popping of exhausts and throaty rumble of V8’s accelerating up the street, but it was sporadic and quickly ceased, either from caution or police intervention. Only rarely did we see a modified car stopped and impounded, maybe four or five the entire night. There were likely more, as the reports from the city the following morning revealed they had impounded roughly 70 cars so far that week, but the numbers also revealed our suspicions were correct. By that time last year, over 300 cars had been towed. Many of the impounds this year were also locals, as we had heard from restaurant staff earlier in the day. So the number of actual tuner cars impounded was likely only a little more than half, meaning either police were not as strict as last year or there just weren’t cars doing anything impound-worthy. 

Impound-worthy is actually a point I’d like to focus on briefly. What you may see on social media tells the story of ticket-hungry cops and otherwise innocent enthusiasts. You’ll see citations for everything from window banners and stickers to lowered suspension or modified exhaust, all things that are otherwise completely reasonable any other time of year. However, what you don’t see are the reasons for the traffic stop. I witnessed several extremely modified cars sporting dark tint, fender to lip fitment, rowdy exhaust, and more drive past police cruisers without so much as a second glance. While they may have received a ticket for those things, it wouldn’t have been reason enough to stop them. 

The cars that did receive tickets and citations for those modifications were all stopped for doing something else, at least from what I witnessed. Blasting down the strip at double the speed limit, jumping across multiple lanes through traffic without an indicator, two-stepping at the red light; these activities warranted the stops that resulted in aggressive tickets and fines, but the modifications themselves weren’t what police were stopping vehicles for in any instance I witnessed. I even saw police cutting up with enthusiasts, allowing them to measure fender to ground distance and headlight height on police cruisers. Everyone seemed in good spirits and the only ‘problem cars’ were dealt with in ways I’d call completely fair. Remember, it isn’t about cracking down on modifications or enthusiasts, it was all in an effort to discourage the behavior that gave H2oi its infamous reputation. 

After these observations and a trip to the gas station, around 10 pm, we headed back to the house to meet the remainder of our group as they arrived in town. Sitting around the living room checking social media revealed many of the usual H2oi attendees had indeed chosen to remain home or picked different events. However, it also revealed something we couldn’t be happier about; media, clout chasers, and disaster tourists were skipping this year. Whether it was in fear of the police or simply the prediction that they wouldn’t have their five minutes of fame didn’t matter. What that meant to us was the people who were there in Ocean City were there for one thing: enjoying their cars with fellow enthusiasts. 

Saturday confirmed our theories. The strip did feature dozens of tuner cars parading up and down the lower streets, side streets were impromptu mini-meets, the Coffee Beanery lot and WaWa were consistently full of enthusiasts, and the atmosphere was completely opposite to last year. It didn’t feel like there was this constant magnifying glass on us, business owners seemed relaxed by this point, if not a little disappointed in the smaller turnout, but it didn’t impede us from having fun. I spent much of Saturday with the camera borrowed from our media team shooting anything interesting I saw, which painted a slightly different picture (pun intended) than social media would have folks believe.

With over 600 shots, most of which were of completely different cars, I was able to count hundreds of enthusiasts who showed up to have a calm, relaxing, enjoyable weekend. There were no riots, there were no unruly crowds, the police weren’t patrolling with dispersion measures, it felt like we were all on the same side this year. Last year had a severe divide between H2oi goers and police. This year, many times I saw police on sidewalks simply conversing with attendees casually and enjoying the cars along with them. I witnessed no fights, no arrests, no wrecks, not even a single burnout. All I saw were respectful enthusiasts showing off their cars and police working with attendees to make sure we were all safe and enjoying ourselves within the rules.

I know this may upset some who want to see chaos and disorder, but honestly, that shouldn’t be the point of car enthusiasm. The fact that it stayed so relaxed all weekend made my time there infinitely more fun than last year’s borderline riots. We treated ourselves to some delicious local food, fearlessly cruised the strip as much as we felt like, and were able to spend more time down in the lower streets of Ocean City proper without a constant, nagging, wariness that we could be caught up in something we didn’t want to be. While it was much smaller than last year, H2oi 2021 seemed like what I imagine the scene was a decade ago, albeit much smaller. No clout, no ‘do it for the after movie antics, no violence, just pure car enthusiasm in a lovely town. 

Unfortunately, the consensus, at least in online communities, seems to be ‘H2oi is dead.’ I find that regrettable. This past weekend, the attendees who did make the trip demonstrated an ability to cordially behave themselves. This allowed us to have a true vacation surrounded by like-minded enthusiasts and made for a fitting way to signify the rapidly approaching end to car season here in the northerly states. I couldn’t have asked for better friends to enjoy this trip with again, nor could I have imagined a more peaceful H2oi. It may be that H2oi as it has been known for the past few years is dead, but to that, I say good riddance. If we could have something like this past weekend’s event annually, I don’t think those who did attend would feel any disappointment. Complain if you want about the lack of lawlessness, but the fact remains: H2oi 2021 represents proof that it’s possible to have an enjoyable weekend without terrorizing the locals. I will certainly return next year, H2oi or not, just to enjoy a lovely vacation with my friends in a picturesque *Mid-Atlantic town.

Special thanks to Dan for hosting once again, to Mongo and Trace for all the laughs, and to Ty for being my anime homie. See you next year, boys.