After endless amounts of research, reading the social media posts, watching the videos, and preparing myself for H2Oi, I felt like I had a grasp on what to expect in Ocean City for the annual ‘unsanctioned’ event. What I found was something entirely different, yet exactly the same, as everyone had described to me before I attended. I found two distinct realities, happening at the same time, separated by night and day quite literally. Two parallel universes, two sides of the car community, and two conflicting responses in my head to what I had witnessed. This is my account, the full story, both sides of H2Oi 2020.
There is yin, and there is yang. Push, and pull. Like waves in the ocean, H2Oi is a gradual buildup of energy and a crashing release. A day and night. While the sights are the same, without the brilliance of sunlight, shapes, places, and people distort under the blanket of darkness. That is, in summary, H2Oi.
The Facebook groups and Instagram hashtags were already full of posts about the hefty police presence, the general lawlessness, excessive fines, unjust abuses of police power, and examples of immaturity. However, as I left my house on Thursday morning in my E30 for the eight-hour drive, I could feel the tone of my weekend setting in as a combination of anxiety and carelessness. Two otherwise conflicting emotions that somehow worked together here.
When I arrived, I was greeted warmly by my hosts. Dan, Ty, Trace, and Mongo graciously invited me into their group and accepted me as one of their own. After only brief conversations on Instagram beforehand, they represented a part of car culture I have grown to love over the past several years. Through a common interest, we instantly formed genuine and lasting friendships. I felt welcomed as they brought me in and were my guides for the weekend around the island. This would be our safe haven, the home base, to where we could escape from the unfolding events the weekend would bring.
Friday – DAY
Friday morning, we left the island to hit the store for groceries and a few impromptu fixes. One of my LED headlights was acting up, so I grabbed some generic bulbs along with the ingredients for the meals I would cook for the group that week. While at the store, I experienced the first small taste of what H2Oi has to offer. The parking lot was fairly full, which would be normal, but here, it was full of modified cars. Everything from Skylines to VIP LS400s to STis and more. The lot was more than peppered; it was brimming with tuner cars. It was then I noticed that stock cars, the regular shoppers, vacationers, and locals, were outnumbered easily two to one.
After dropping our groceries at the house, we headed out to cruise Coastal Highway and witness the first day of the ‘event’ as enthusiasts and onlookers poured into the city. After reading the countless posts of cars sent to the impound lot for lowered suspension, loud exhaust, wheel camber, and window tint, I decided it would be best to park my BMW, which exhibits all of those things, just inside the Maryland border so I could scope out the city and see if it was safe to drive.
What I found after leaving my car and riding down to Acme where we watched cars cruise the strip was that I instantly wanted it back. The police were out, but it was incredibly casual. Stanced builds of every variety, Camaros with thumper cams and straight pipes, limo tinted VIP cars, and more drove Coastal Highway without so much as a glance by the police. The Acme lot overflowed with a steady influx of enthusiast cars. The law enforcement presence watched calmly but otherwise avoided confrontations. Where was the abusive power I had seen all over the internet?
While I did see one or two cars claimed by the impound tow trucks, I couldn’t help but notice most of what was towed weren’t what I would call ‘stancy’ or extremely modified. It made me worry that the police were impounding anyone and everyone for so much as a sticker on your windshield, but it also made me curious as to why much more modified cars were unbothered. To test my theory, I went and retrieved my BMW, cruised down the strip, and met back up with everyone at Acme to post up for the shows. I was not hassled by the law as I drove the speed limit, careful to keep my RPMs down to quiet the cammed M52 breathing through straight pipes.
Eventually, after more than a few hours, the police politely asked everyone to leave Acme. We happily obliged, returned to our cars, and cruised up Coastal Highway. We drove for a bit, enjoyed the sights, and went to the house to make dinner before we would witness the night.
Friday – NIGHT
In what can only be described as a Jekyll and Hyde style transformation, Ocean City became an alternate-reality version of itself in the time between late afternoon when we went home for dinner and early evening when we set back out for the strip. Again, somewhat concerned about my car’s legality and in the interest of filming the evening, I left my E30 just inside the Ocean City limits and jumped in Dan’s E90 to drive southbound on Coastal. The casual, laid-back, and otherwise agreeable atmosphere of the day time had been replaced by an anxiety-inducing climate change. The streets were lined with onlookers, all armed with their phones, attempting to coax drivers into a burnout, waiting and watching for something to happen.
It was fewer than ten minutes into the gridlock of southbound traffic when I saw the first tires light up on the strip. The gallery on the sidewalk chanted, their attention focused on one or two cars at a time, as they pressured drivers into dangerous behavior. The crowd was there to see something dramatic, the drivers were there to give it to them, and a vicious cycle began. Each stoplight quickly became a harrowing venue for destruction. Mustangs, Chargers, and Challengers made up most of the cars leaving each light in a furious cacophony of screaming V8s and wailing tires. Rolling burnouts and brake stands began to increase in frequency.
Inching slowly south, we saw the police presence grow exponentially, along with the size of crowds on street corners. Every few minutes, the sounds of two-stepping and tires squealing could be heard, only broken up by the sounds of police sirens and the chanting crowds. The city was stress-tested in its capacity for vehicles, people, and tolerance. Eventually, something had to break.
It was as we approached the lowest streets that we saw burnouts at every corner. We saw Ocean City Police rush to stop one driver only for three more to shoot fireballs or lay thick black deposits of rubber behind their tires. It seemed as though the number of drivers, people in the crowds on the sidewalks, and the incredible amount of destructive action would be enough to overwhelm law enforcement.
We turned around and made our way back north as the air around the south side of the island filled with smoke, fireworks, and chanting from restless hoards of people. The police rolled in and quickly pushed everyone either northbound or off the island. As we drove back north, we saw the police had closed the island – only letting people leave and diverting all traffic off the island. I wondered about the regular tourists and local residents who simply wanted to get back to their homes or hotels who sat in hours of traffic only to find they were directed back off the island. It made me ashamed that the crowds and actions of several of us were responsible for the situation.
Again, I noticed something that evening. The cars I saw on tow trucks or stopped on the side of the road were not the well-built cars of enthusiasts. They were stock Dodge Chargers, minivans, pickup trucks, and only the occasional ‘tuner’ car. These were the people responsible for the police presence. These were the drivers who were ‘sending it’ up the strip, lighting up their tires, driving under the influence, or, in the case of a Crown Vic I witnessed, rolling a sideways burnout from a parking lot directly in front of an unmarked cruiser. Naturally, the driver was arrested and his car was justifiably impounded.
When we returned home for the evening, unable to get back on the island if we wanted, we all discussed what we had observed. The police were indeed overwhelmed, but not by unruly car enthusiasts. The crowds of onlookers, likely there without a car worthy of showing, demanded action. They asked for a dramatic display and received it, but not by who I would call ‘enthusiasts.’ They did not seem to be there for the incredible builds and rare examples of legendary cars. They just wanted to see burnouts, chaos, and police chases. They wanted an excuse to act like animals and get away with it due to the size of the ‘event.’ It had little to do with cars and more to do with being an outlaw. I felt saddened and ashamed by what I saw on the strip that night.
Saturday – DAY
We began our morning quietly, with breakfast and some fishing in the canal behind Dan’s house, before setting out once more. Cars and Coffee was held there at the Coffee Beanery, a local business sympathetic to the H2Oi attendance, who let us use their lot for what began as a fairly tame car meet. We parked after enduring yet another gridlock on Coastal Highway and walked around the lot. It wasn’t long before the main driving paths through the lot were lined with crowds and the cars that drove through were encouraged to show off. What started with the occasional rev turned into two-stepping, then burnouts, and finally side-show style donuts, drifting, and danger. Over a matter of two hours, cars and coffee had become a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, after what felt like entirely too long to let the behavior continue, the police came through and cleared the lot. I didn’t see anyone hassled, with the exception of a BMW M4 driver who did a burnout in front of two police. As we left, my E30 became beached on the exit to the parking lot, in front of the same two police cruisers who had the M4 driver in custody. With nothing else to do but throttle myself unstuck, I sheepishly looked at the officers, spun my tires until I had traction, and scraped out of the lot. They both waved me on without so much as a word. It was then that I came to a realization. The social media posts about cars being stopped for modifications are a distortion of the truth. While they do display what I would call ‘excessive’ tickets and fines for otherwise harmless modifications, it was the result of another action that forced the traffic stop.
Without a reason, the police were not stopping drivers of even the most heavily cambered stance cars. They stopped drivers for speeding, running lights, two-stepping in traffic, burnouts, and otherwise pushing their luck. In order to discourage that kind of behavior, tickets for all the modifications are added. It’s an effort to make the consequences worse than the ‘reward’ of doing whatever it was you were doing in the first place. Even though I would not call myself sympathetic to law enforcement, I had to agree with their tactics.
With that new understanding, I began to confidently drive my E30 on the strip. Not once was I stopped as I drove up and down Coastal Highway, parking for a water and energy drink at WaWa, hanging out in back lots until we were asked politely to go somewhere else, and meeting new people who shared our attitude of calm respect. For the most part, it was a stress-free, fun, and relaxing day.
As it wound down and the sun began to set, however, tension rose on the strip. Everyone waited to see how out of control Saturday night would be and what the police would do. Their strategy to create standstill traffic and divert everyone away from the island seemed to work the night before, but Saturday night was set to be more exuberant. Anxiety about my car driving on the strip set in and we decided it was best to take it home for dinner where we would leave it for the evening.
Saturday – NIGHT
We left reasonably early from the house and found ourselves in an unmoving, miles-long, gridlock. I noticed there were few show cars. It was mostly stock cars, packed with kids holding phones and cameras, all going to see and participate in what I could only assume they hoped would be complete anarchy.
We crawled along, covering only a dozen blocks or so in an hour, before the Instagram accounts showed why the traffic was unmoving. The police had already shut down the island and were turning cars onto the bridge somewhere around 96th street. They funneled the traffic down to a halt, prevented anyone from entering the island, and probably saved Ocean City from burning to the ground that evening. We decided it was too much effort to get there and, if the police presence was any indication, it had likely become much rowdier than we would want to experience.
After sitting in traffic that was most certainly not a rolling car show for nearly three hours, we turned around and left for the house. Upon our return, we all sat around to watch the social media pages to see what had happened on the south side of the island.
What I saw made me genuinely happy that we had missed it. Riot control had been deployed, along with local SWAT teams, to quell the swarms of people in the streets. Burnout boxes, groups of people blocking the police from chasing after drivers, and overall lawlessness was dominating our social media feeds. We watched from the safety and quiet of the house as lines of heavily armed law enforcement groups pushed crowds out of the streets. Kids set fireworks off, launching them often towards the police. Videos of fights between attendees and even assaults on officers quickly trended. Busloads of additional reinforcements were called by the city as it had descended into absolute madness.
It was this activity that I had hoped would not happen. I expected it and was happy that it held off until the final day, but I hoped it would just be a relaxed weekend. I found myself upset that such an incredible venue for enjoying cars together could be so ruined by people with no understanding that their actions are not a protest – they’re anarchy. I’m all for resisting authority when it oversteps its bounds, but this was certainly not that. I had the perspective going into the weekend that it was enthusiasts vs. OCPD. That Ocean City hates modified tuner cars, that police were ticketing and impounding cars for the slightest of modifications, and that the lawlessness was a direct response to overreaching police and excessive harassment of an otherwise law-abiding group.
Unfortunately, in my observation, I cannot say what I witnessed was excessive by any means on the side of law enforcement. I saw patience and understanding from the police met with brutality and provocation led by crowds of people I do not think represent the car community. When I saw that the majority of cars going into town at night were just regular cars filled with intoxicated kids hoping to see police action, I had a feeling that the enthusiasts knew better than to go down there. From what I saw online that night and witnessed firsthand, that seemed to be the case.
In short, H2Oi is two completely different events that happen at the same place over the same weekend, separated by night and day. Under the pleasantly warm sun and refreshed by the ocean breeze, enthusiasts show off their artistic efforts through a rolling car show up and down Coastal Highway. They gather and enjoy each others’ builds, drive together, photograph and film, create memories, and bring a boost to the local economy. They are the enthusiast attendees of H2Oi who make up the daytime event. At night, the crowd is children only there to live like an outlaw for a weekend. They aren’t there for the cars, just the destruction high horsepower (or 100hp shitboxes) can create. They want to tempt fate and the police, they want to live out of control, and they want to witness the chaos. H2Oi at night is the hellish, upside down, alternate netherworld where the underbelly of the car community want nothing more than the anarchy they cause.
I feel like the duality of the event is best summarized by the conflict and contradiction represented all weekend. Both anxious and relaxed, both controlled and chaotic, night and day. The internet would have you believe it’s either a lawless display of aggression or a blameless show of enthusiasm for our cars. In reality, it is both. The internet and social media depict riots, burnouts, million-dollar cars, non-stop impounded cars, an out of control city, and a resort vacation. It is both none of these things and all of them at once. However, unlike the balance of high and low tides, the tidemark every year is higher than the one before. The weight has shifted to one side of the fulcrum, the side with temptation aggression, and ego, and it doesn’t seem to on the downswing yet. I think we have yet to see the worst of H2Oi, but the best came and went well before I could experience it.
Still, I think my experience was different than most this year. I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with people I am now proud to call my friends. True enthusiasts, kind people with no desire to take part in the debauchery that many on the island that weekend went to be a part of. Dan, Ty, Trace, and Mongo, I can’t say thank you enough for letting me join you and observe one of the most incredible events I have seen to date. Maybe next year there will be more car show and less riot.