Thousands of car enthusiasts from across the country spend all year looking forward to spending the last weekend of September in Ocean City, Maryland.
It’s the same period when the resort town of less than 10,000 year-round residents braces for a storm of sorts.
In 2018, the H2O International car show officially left Worcester County to set up shop at a New Jersey hotel. Its promoter condemned Ocean City officials, the media and others, writing in a letter that they unfairly tied the event to a flood of unruly visitors in the town.
The event’s relocation has done little to quell the droves of spectators and drivers who flock to the Eastern Shore at the end of September to showcase often heavily modified vehicles with burnouts, doughnuts and other daring roadway displays.
Although these visitors may be filling hotel rooms and patronizing local restaurants and bars as the resort season begins to wind down, they’ve also earned the ire of locals and town leaders who have described their behavior over the years as disruptive, disappointing, dangerous and appalling.
Here’s a look back at how H2Oi got its start in Worcester County and the evolution that spawned an independent gathering of thousands of car enthusiasts who continue to come back even after the formal event’s relocation.
Circa 2000: H2Oi car show begins its tenure on Eastern Shore
An article published in an August 2011 edition of The Daily Times said the official car show actually started in Connecticut.
In its third year, the event moved to Ocean Downs in Berlin, putting its Worcester County debut around 2000.
Promoter Jay Shoup said in the 2011 article that the car show started out as a barbecue at his home with a small showing of about 200 vehicles. Each year, the event grew “exponentially,” he said, with 1,300 registered cars and 6,000 attendees at its 2010 iteration.
2011: Car show relocates from Ocean Downs
In 2011, an article in The Daily Times shows H2Oi relocated from the Berlin casino to a nearby property owned by Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School.
That year, social media users speculated there may not be a car show at all following the 2010 event. Those speculations led to competition. However, a Volkswagen meetup scheduled for the same weekend folded after confirmation the annual car show would go on as usual.
A spokesperson for the Ocean City Police Department at the time told The Daily Times that traffic violations during the car show’s 2010 weekend included racing from Coastal Highway red lights, spinning out U-turns on wet pavement and speeding.
The agency reported receiving twice as many calls about car crashes that weekend compared to the same time the previous year.
In addition, the police chief in 2010 told The Daily Times the weekend had the department “stretched thin,” with hundreds gathering at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center parking lot, where drinking and fighting caused problems.
2012: H2Oi sets up shop at Whaleyville campground
A 2013 OceanCity.com piece shows the event moved once again in 2012, making its new official headquarters the Fort Whaley Campground.
Poor drainage at the Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School property, where the 2011 event took place, coupled with wet weather that year prompted the relocation.
In an effort to alleviate issues, the event’s timeline also shifted in 2012 so that it would no longer coincide with Ocean City’s Sunfest activities, according to OceanCity.com.
It’s a shift Shoup highlighted in a 2018 letter as a favor to town leaders, law enforcement and community members that, he wrote, ultimately “has proven to be a poor decision, based off the weather.
2014: Police takes on horse assaults, illegally modified cars
As visitors flooded the resort town in 2014, police said two different men took swings at one of the department’s horses while the mounted officer was working crowd control.
Delmarva Now reported the first incident occurred at about 1:15 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, when a 23 year old of Norristown, Pennsylvania, struck the horse known as Benson and reached under his saddlebag. Another nearby officer stopped him.
About an hour later, police said a 26 year old of North Arlington, New Jersey, attempted a similar maneuver and was arrested by Benson’s mounted officer Joseph Laughlin. Both men were charged with interfering with a police animal.
That year, police told Delmarva Now that officers also made efforts to crack down on vehicle modifications that would not pass Maryland inspections, such as tires at “unsafe levels.” Those violations resulted in tickets as well as several cars being towed.
2015: Nor’easter dampens unofficial H2Oi presence in Ocean City
Because of a nor’easter, the 2015 H2Oi weekend had a smoother and quieter presence in Ocean City.
“To the ones who think H2Oi is a free-for-all and no rules or laws exist while attending H2Oi and staying in OCMD, I hope to make this crystal clear … I don’t want you,” the official H2Oi account posted to Facebook in anticipation of the 2015 event.
It was reported the Ocean City Police Department fielded 773 calls for service from Thursday through Sunday — a nearly 30 percent drop compared to 2014. Police data from 2010 through 2015, showed there were an average of about 53 arrests in on H2Oi weekends, but there were less than 40 during the 2015 edition.
2017: Official event cancelled, but “appalling” behavior still comes to Ocean City
H2Oi continued its tenure in Whaleyville until 2017, when the event promoter announced the car show would be postponed until 2018, less than a month before car enthusiasts were expected to descend on Worcester County.
The delay was the result of “changes in venue options and a diminishing timeline,” according to an official statement posted on the H2Oi website.
More:What is H2Oi?
It was the first time the formal event had been canceled in its nearly two-decade run in Worcester, yet drivers and spectators alike still made the trek to Ocean City for the purpose of an unsanctioned, social-media driven gathering independent of the official yearly event.
Many visitors that year engaged in what town officials condemned as “unruly” and “appalling” behavior.
Major incidents that year:
December 2017: First Ocean City Motor Events Task Force meeting
In the wake of the September 2017 unofficial and unsanctioned H2Oi gathering, Ocean City’s town leaders created a 27-member task force to develop solutions aimed at curbing issues with major motor vehicle events in the area.
Composed of residents, business owners, local organization members, nonresident representatives, event representatives and town staff, the Motor Events Task Force had its first meeting, which was open to the public, in December 2017.
Though not all viable, the group brought several ideas to the table, including calling in the National Guard, creating special enforcement zones, expanding impounding rules and developing targeted social media messaging.
April 2018: Maryland enacts special event zone law
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed legislation in April 2018 that allowed Ocean City to deploy special event zoning.
It’s a tactic that lowers speed limits throughout town for the dates surrounding certain events, while at the same time raising fines for traffic violations to as high as $1,000 — similar to construction zones. The idea came out of the Motor Events Task Force and was spearheaded in Annapolis by Eastern Shore lawmakers.
The resort town put the new law to the test for the first time from May 15-20, 2018, for the Cruisin’ Ocean City event.
July 2018: H2Oi finds new home in New Jersey, but Ocean City is ready anyway
In a July 2018 Instagram post, the H2Oi account officially announced the car show would be based that year at The Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
However, social media activity made it clear that many still planned to show up in Ocean City. Comments stated, “See y’all in OC Maryland” and “We don’t care, we’re all still going to Ocean City.”
Despite the event’s official relocation, an Ocean City Police Department spokesperson said the agency was bracing for crowds similar to what had been seen in past years.
In 2017, police data shows more calls for service, traffic stops and arrests during the Thursday through Sunday period that would have coincided with H2Oi than the same period in the previous four years, even though the official event had been cancelled.
October 2018: Special event zone law deemed success
Officials dubbed special event zoning a success after deploying it during the 2018 unofficial H2Oi gathering. Officers issued 400 more traffic citations than the previous year.
A photo of one driver’s citations that circulated social media showed he racked up more than $1,500 in fines for going 75 mph in the Special Event Zone and using a cellphone while driving.
2019: Clashes with law enforcement reach new high
Video captured of this year’s unofficial H2Oi activities showcased high tensions between visitors and law enforcement, as well as behavior that Mayor Rick Meehan described in a Facebook post as “havoc” that had the town “under siege and in danger.”
What now takes place in Ocean City is organized solely on social media without any single organizer or promoter responsible for the chaos. Membership in public and closed Facebook groups aimed at planning for the Ocean City gathering ranges from a few hundred to more than 60,000 users.
Major incidents included:
2020: Disorder intensifies as enforcement steps up
Ocean City and its law enforcement partners across the state vowed to step up enforcement and maintain order after the chaos of 2019.
Numerous confrontations ensued Friday night involving drivers, bystanders and police.
Perhaps the most notorious was caught on video by a local photographer. The footage showed an individual shoulder-checking a state trooper as the trooper took another person into custody who had just been tackled to the ground.
The town had already suspended public transportation for the weekend and at least a handful of Ocean City eateries shut their doors early after Friday night’s disorder.
The chaos intensified Saturday night, with law enforcement cutting off driver access between 52nd Street and the Route 50 Bridge. Much of downtown had become impassible because of “large disorderly crowds” according to police.
Various social media posts showed gatherings on Baltimore Avenue and Philadelphia Avenue, including at least one video of rally-goers completely blocking a roadway.
Police said more than 100 people had been arrested and charged with various criminal and traffic offenses by 5 a.m. Sunday. While they deemed the weekend’s disorder “unacceptable,” Ocean City officials said plans to crack down on illegal behavior worked.