The happiest man in the Western hemisphere is swaying unsteadily on the corner of Coastal Highway and 56th Street in Ocean City, yelling at the occupants of a black Honda Accord that is crawling through jammed traffic six feet in front of him.
"DO A FUCKIN' BURNOUT!!!" he bellows at the laughing passengers, whose illegally tinted windows are rolled down so as to take in the atmosphere of this special Saturday night in early October.
It's nearing 11 p.m. A full red beard shrouds the happiest man's pale, fat young face. He is wearing sandals, cargo shorts, and a backpack filled with cans of Miller Lite, two of which he grips in his right hand like stacked mortar shells. "DON'T USE YOUR TURN SIGNAL!!! DO A BURNOUT!!!" he commands traffic across six lanes of tortured asphalt as 75 revelers arrayed behind him on the sidewalk snicker and join in the heckling.
We are at the epicenter of H2O International, 2016, an annual car show (this is the 19th running) that is nominally staged 15 miles due west of here, in the Fort Whaley campground. But H2Oi (or just H2O) as it is called, is more than the advertised "barbecue and music fest." And it's way, way more than the assemblage of automotive tuning shops, aftermarket wheel suppliers, shift-ball vendors, product displays, video race arcade, and handy phone chargers set up by Volkswagen A.G., the show's co-sponsor. H2Oi, billed by founder and impresario Jay Shoup as "The 'Laid Back' 2-Day Volkswagen/Audi Event," is the peak social gathering of the year for East Coast fans, drivers, and modifiers of Volkswagen, Audi, and a lot of other import cars from Japan and Europe. Something like 5,000 cars will be in the park tomorrow, almost all of them lowered, hotted-up and/or emissions-non-compliant.
The drivers and passengers in at least 5,000 more will never pay the entrance fee, preferring to cruise this strip all day long, admiring one another's rides and playing hide-and seek with the police.
"We're more fun than Bike Week and Muscle Car Week combined," boasts Ani Hale, who is in her 20s, five-foot nothing and 100 pounds and standing three feet behind the happiest man. Hale says she comes here every year with Christian Zawadski and Eric Heath, who likewise have never gone to the actual show and who moments ago goaded the driver of an BMW E30 to smoke up his tires on a wide U-turn from across the street, delighting all. "The guy in an Audi did an awesome burnout," Hale says, recounting some action from the rainy night before. "This bike cop was peddling his ass off and caught up to him"—and gave him a ticket.
"There was more than one bike cop," says Heath. "We were cheering them on."
Three lanes across the street, a skinny dude in the passenger seat of something shiny and low is barking through a bullhorn on his lap, demanding "Somebody do something stupid!" Heath has meanwhile wandered into the bus lane with the happiest man and is shit-talking the occupants of another car that happiest man is imploring to do a burnout. "Nah," Heath taunts, "you're not doing nothing." Now a new Mustang fishtails past, its five-liter V8 howling at full throttle before cutting out in a machine-gun volley of backfires. A crowd goes running after it to see what the cops are gonna do, while diagonally across the Coastal, two other cars collide and blue lights flash.
A quadcopter drone floats above the street capturing the action on video as crews of Honda Ruckus riders and bike cops buzz by. The happiest man is now haranguing a black sedan full of locals: completely innocent bystanders caught in a carnival freak show for car nuts. "If you do the burnout," he bellows, "I'll give you the fuckin' hunnerd dollars!" The girl in the back seat smiles and waves as they idle past.
"Back up," the bike cops say. "Off the sidewalk."
Behind us a guy yells "Serve and protect, baby!" and then "Breaker one-nine!" The young man next to him starts making revving noises with his mouth: "Brapappappappappapp!! Rummmm rummmm!" The happiest man is loudly announcing that he has consumed only three beers. "I've been drinking since I was 14!" he boasts at the cops, who discretely ignore him. "I'm 20 now! I mean 21!"
"Clear the sidewalk, please," police calmly instruct.
A fire truck roars by with its sirens howling; across the street, two more police cars light up at another fender bender. Beyond them, the hotel balconies are full of cheering fans.
Americans have loved their cars for a century, and young Americans have usually preferred them low and fast and weird and dangerous: Dean Moriarty streaking across the country behind the wheel of a '37 Ford sedan, "Big Daddy" Ed Roth sculpting mechanical monsters out of sheet steel and fiberglass while bouffant beauties danced the hully-gully. Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby! The Snake versus the Mongoose every Sunday on bell-bottom drag strips. "American Graffiti" and the Magic Rat driving his sleek machine over the Jersey state line, just ahead of the maximum lawman. The $4 billion "Fast and Furious" franchise has supported Universal Pictures for a decade and a half on laughing gas and a crust-less tuna sandwich, because in America, cars are our freedom and our art. They are made to be tinkered-with, modified, pin-striped, accessorized, fortified, wrapped, and raced. They stand for ourselves.
But the subculture is under threat. School debt, declining income, and the high cost of a new jalopy zero-out a huge percentage of would-be motorheads, while new technologies have made fads and fantasies of different kinds of machines, from the once-overclocked gaming computer to the ubiquitous smartphone. James Dean died hot, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman slipped away cool, and we're left with Jay Leno with his high-buck garage of curiosities—and this proud tribe of hyper wiseguys with greasy fingers, facing a terrible future they can't believe. In Pittsburgh, Uber tests self-driving cars while everywhere bespectacled innovators appear, describing the inevitable and fast-approaching "Post-Driver Life." It's a consensus-vision of cars as autonomous rental appliances, mere conveyances, so finely-regulated and completely-homogenized that only a lunatic could care about one—and none but a factory-certified and state-licensed specialist would dare raise a wrench. Everywhere the robots and the Environmental Protection Agency are closing in, and automotive customizing is again becoming an outlaw pursuit.
Here in Ocean City, on the first weekend in October, the outlaws skirmish with their blue adversary on what used to be called the open road.
"We've already seen one crash," says Dave Ascheman, a 26-year-old, strong-muscled medium-haul trucker and weekend racecar driver.
"Two pulled over," adds Larry Tobias, a retired school teacher and Dave's friend and landlord and housemate, who incidentally hates Hillary Clinton and looks something like the late Larry "Bud" Melman of the Letterman show.
"One impounding," says Lacey Sodano, a nurse who is Dave's girlfriend and co-driver for this event; it's a necessity to bring two of one's four cars.
It's Friday, the night before H2Oi officially begins. At 9 p.m., we're on the third-floor front balcony of the Cayman Suites Hotel on 125th Street, Dave's H2O spot for many years. Larry, whose room this is, offers a concoction of Southern Comfort plus diet iced tea, which he has not yet named. It's not bad. The show hasn't started, but Dave, Lacey, and Larry arrived last night, and tell me I've already missed the whole first day.
Larry usually drives his Mini but this time weather put him in the Durango.
Dave drove down from Pennsylvania in his 1998 GTI, despite its non-street-legal status. It has no catalytic converter and no muffler, so as to more efficiently expel the exhaust of its V-6 engine. The car has no interior upholstery, save two deep bucketed race seats and a set of red Crow racing harnesses. There is a full roll cage, which the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) requires for hill climb competition. The headlights are yellow, "because racecar," Dave says. The paint job was applied by Dave with a spray can, and 56 Sharpie permanent markers. Every body panel is one line drawn in an intricate freehand maze. The pattern extends to the roll cage and the tiny rear wing he affixed last year. It is stunning.
This year Dave won the Mid-Atlantic SCCA Improved Touring Class in hill climb. He beat only two or three other competitors, he says, but he did set several records.
Lacey drove Dave's 2009 Jetta GLI, a deeply lowered beast that sits on Corvette wheels. Its cat is missing in action, too, lost to the Stage II tuning that boosted its turbo-charged output to over 300 horses, from the original 200.
Both of these cars are mild, in H2O's context. All over the street there are cars with meaner motors or giant spoiler wings or wider tires, which are then tilted like an A-frame under the fenders, so they ride only on the outer edges. Such extreme cambering is a sub-subculture, done for style points—a great way to draw attention from the police as well. Too much wins a trip to the impound lot.
If they catch you.
"Down that way," Dave says, his hand sweeping southward, "there's so many of us that are illegal that it's like a lottery whether you get pulled over." He pulls up an Instagram page called OCPD ROLL CALL, which already has more than 23,000 followers (but will vanish by Tuesday morning). It's filled with photos of impoundings, tickets, and crashes, all here, all now. A typical post (this one under a shot of a yellow Nissan 350 Z with leaned-in wheels): "Throwback Thursday: When the officer says to you 'You're going to keep it parked the rest of the weekend right?' But you have your fingers crossed behind your back."
Yep, the owner has his fingers crossed behind his back.
Dave (who the stickered the hashtag, "#omgti," to the Sharpie car's back window) explains the game: Once impounded, a car must stay in the cage until it's towed out—it can't leave under its own power. So dozens of small-timers rent U-Haul car trailers and advertise on social media. "Give them $50 and they pull you out," Dave laughs. "Most people are going to go back out and drive."
Thus the cycle of fun continues.
"I got a ticket already today," Dave says, retrieving it with evident pride: $90. "All I know is, I took second gear out a little too far." Sharpie does about 75 mph in second. The speed limit is half that. Like a lot of H2O people, Dave has a ticket budget: "I want to keep it under four figures."
On the street below, a Miata goes by on the hook of a tow truck.
By the weekend's close 38 vehicles will be towed, at least 23 of which are here for H2O, OCPD spokeswoman Lindsay Richard reports later. There will be 1,222 traffic stops and 15 collisions, with 46 arrests, including 10 DUI and one for drugs.
This is about double last year's traffic stops and crashes, but last year, Hurricane Joaquin washed out the weekend. The 2014 numbers were similar to 2016. It's maybe nine more tows than a normal, heavy summer weekend, Richard calculates, which doesn't seem like that much when you look at some of these cars.
"Believe me, I get it," says Ross Buzzuro, Ocean City's police chief, in a phone interview a few weeks ahead of the show. "I had a Trans Am, a 400 under the hood."
A bit of speeding, drag-racing, and burnouts are the norm on car-centric weekends, he says, but during H2O "it's right in your face."
Contempt-of-cop is never a good strategy, and Buzzuro says his officers see little of that when dealing with individuals, "but when there are 50 or more, they might feel like there's safety in numbers."
There is safety in numbers, for sure—until the whole scene gets booted.
The show, which began in Connecticut, has been a bit of a vagabond. For years it was held at the Dover Downs race track, says Dave. But there was an incident, circa 2011. "Everybody kicks us out," he says.
So too on the strip, where any parking lot can become a pop-up car show until something goes terribly wrong—or terribly right—and the police swoop in to shut it down.
"The Tap House used to be the place," Dave says, "but they blocked it off. Two guys got in a fight and attacked a horse, so that's why they threw us out."
Judging by the YouTube videos, the 2014 mayhem appeared to start over loyalties to car brands. The dividing line between VW/Audi denizens, whose show this officially is, and the "outcasts" rocking Nissans, Subarus, and Hondas, can be thick and dark, depending on beers. There was a loud dude demanding "what's up?" to a guy and slamming him in his own car, which then sped away. Then hundreds of macho idiots chanting while loud dude squared off with another guy and got dropped. Bike cops stepped in to break it up. No horses appeared to have been injured.
Tales of crazy burnouts and wicked accidents abide. There was the "Supra Stairclimb," a 2011 event involving a red Toyota taking out a condominium staircase.
"Wait till you see what they did to the Convention Center," Dave says as we pass.
Two years ago, someone hacked into the parking lot landscape sprinkler there to facilitate juicier burnouts. Today there are buses lined up nose to tail around the perimeter. "That's so we can't get in," he laughs.
Every car we pass is full of kids holding their phones up vertically taking video. Lacey, who grew up 170 miles from here in Pottstown, PA, is talking to a woman in a new Beetle she knows from school.
"There's a GTR!" Dave yells. "You never see those anywhere."
Dave knows a lot about other marques, but he's been a VW guy since age 16, when his mother gave him her Jetta. "I blew up the trans twice," Dave says. "My dad knew how to fix it all."
Dave's father is a mechanic who works for an auto parts wholesaler. He races a Ford-engined kit car he built by himself in 1978. He was SCCA Philadelphia Region auto-cross class champion one year in the late 1990s.
"Not one of my cars has a cat," Dave says of his four VWs in various stages of tune, although all of them are registered and insured for street use. This requires some finesse.
Unlike Maryland, Pennsylvania requires an annual safety inspection, but it exempts from emissions testing vehicles that are driven less than 5,000 miles per year.
The car Dave calls "jalopy" has a second instrument cluster he can plug in for inspection. The odometer on it hardly moves, as it is stored most of the time. "I have an immobilizer defeat," Dave says: an electronic hack that bypasses a now-ubiquitous theft prevention feature. "I can swap in any gauge cluster or ECU. It gets near 2,500 miles, I'll swap in the other cluster, and I'm under five-k; exempt."
This sounds more nefarious than it is. "I don't drive when I'm at home," Dave says over home fries and eggs at the Parched Pelican. He spends about 60 hours per week at work, 65,000 miles a year behind the wheel of a big rig with a dump trailer hauling gravel, slag, ash, gypsum, and sometimes reprocessed human waste. "I haul that stuff and dump it in farmers' fields," he says.
Truck driving is among America's last good-paying, high-skill, low-education professions. It is also a precarious vocation, according to recent wisdom, but Dave thinks self-driving trucks are 20 years in the future—not five, as the Silicon Valley people predict. "They're too big," he says confidently, noting that his truck weighs 10 or 20 times as much as a big SUV. "You'd need sensors all along every trailer. They're not going to spend the money."
Trucks still have drum brakes, Dave says, a technology that car racers abandoned in the early 1950s. Much of the industry remains in a technological time warp: While a few drivers labor under the watchful eye of electronic monitors that count their hours and log their routes, "I'm still on paper logs," he says. But Dave's argument is basically Luddite. It's about the human will, the male ego, mistrust of technology and, ultimately, the threat of its destruction: "How many guys out there," he asks, "do you think would allow a computer to drive?"
It's raining as Dave, Larry, and I make our way to Whaleyville on Saturday morning in the GLI. Dave chatters about rare models and options as he steers and shifts. He recognizes a 32R Golf from blocks away, noting subtle differences in the front bumper and fascia. He tromps the go pedal as we cross a bridge, pushing us back in the seats. "There's 80," he says, meaning miles per hour.
As we take our place in the line of cars outside Fort Whaley, Dave's friend Dub calls: A woman in a minivan has backed into Sharpie. Dave ponders going back to the hotel, but Dub texts pictures—just a crack in the front bumper. "Oh, that ain't bad," Dave says. "The headlight ain't broken. The fiberglass fender ain't broken. Only problem is that's a one-off custom bumper."
He bought it online years ago. "All the Mark IIIs, those are all fog lights, but this one is all filled in. It's custom ABS plastic, from the back. Soon as I saw it online I said, Oh my god! That's so aerodynamic. That's perfect." He estimates it took him six hours to Sharpie the bumper.
Subtle details matter in the custom car world. "The European guys all want our stuff," Dave says. "All the fenders and bumpers have lights in them, for safety. The Americans all want Euro stuff because it's all shaved and clean." And, of course, different from the common stock. There's a guy in Pennsylvania who sells complete right-hand drive conversion kits for American VWs. They can cost several thousand bucks and make the car much harder to drive on the right side of the road, but there's no mistaking one of them for your mother's grocery-getter.
I ask Dave how big this scene is. "Look at APR," he says, referring to one of the major VW/Audi aftermarket performance tuning companies. "They're racing [Audi] R8s in the 24 Hours of Daytona. They are a full-sponsor race team. And VW will be there. They're fully behind it. It's not like they're trying to turn us away from the industry."
We pay our $20-a-head entrance fee ($60 for the car!) and scrape over speed bumps to a far-off parking field. No one's saying anything about global climate change, but the parking lot from last year is under deep water, picnic tables jutting up here and there. We take shelter from the mist under the big canopies where Unitronic, APR, and VW are hawking their wares.
Under the APR canopy, Alix Shore-Kaminski asks the crucial question about a $480 pulley and some special software: "How hard is it to install?"
"Takes about an hour," says Greg Frazier, an APR rep.
"That's what they always say," Shore-Kaminski shoots back. "How much would it run for a Stage II?"
A petite woman who looks to be in her 30s, Shore-Kaminski is a master technician with 11 years of experience. "I fix Hondas to pay for the Audis," she says, adding that her Audi S4 was recently hit while parked, so she's in her Audi 90 today.
She's shopping to make the S4, which comes factory-equipped with 340 horsepower, faster.
I ask her what sort of power she's seeking.
"What am I shooting for?" she laughs. "To blow it up!"
The new pulley would turn the supercharger faster, creating more boost. The software would authorize the car's computer to make use of the extra boost.
Does that affect emissions?
"You can set it back with a switch," Shore-Kaminski says. "That's what VW did!"
Last year, just a few weeks before this show, Volkswagen agreed to pay a $14.7 billion penalty to atone for the biggest emissions-related scandal ever: The company secretly programmed the computers in 11 million of its diesel cars to recognize when they were being tested for emissions, and fully deploy the emissions gear only then. When driven normally, the engines would pollute like a boss. The factory switch was automatic and unknown to consumers. It was discovered by researchers at West Virginia University. The company lost 30 percent of its stock value after the scandal broke in September 2015, and there are likely more settlements in the down pipe.
A responsible adult, Shore-Kaminski says she plans to keep her car's catalytic converters and doesn't intend to break the law.
Whether APR and other tuning shops provide fully-legal products is open to interpretation. The EPA has hit aftermarket performance companies before. It just fined Harley Davidson $12 million for marketing a "super tuner" device to its motorcycle customers.
"You can pick up with tuning anywhere from 40 to 115 horsepower and still have a reliable car," says Frazier, of APR. "The barriers to entry are very low; the horsepower-to-dollar ratio is very high."
The changes are possible because VW builds engines that can handle the extra power—and sometimes markets higher-power versions of them itself.
"All the factory does is change the software," says Paul Brooker, who works in APR's research and development.
"The stuff they do on this, inside the ECU, there are hundreds and hundreds of hours that go into a Stage I tune," Brooker says. It's software engineers, plus traditional mechanics and engineers working with running engines on a dynamometer, seeing how changes in air and fuel ratios, boost pressure, and even pipe shapes affect power output, fuel consumption, and the vital things like heat generation.
It's highly sophisticated work, and it all starts with a break-in.
"These computers aren't designed from the factory to be changed," Frazier says. "It's synonymous with hacking."
I ask Frazier if it's legal, particularly given that what is done is not very different from what VW just agreed to cough-up nearly $15 billion for doing. Brooker, who'd been tapping on his phone, looks up and theatrically turns to his colleague, wide-eyed: "You're goin' to jail," he says.
About a hundred feet away from the APR canopy, the New German Performance kiosk has two cars lined up with small monitors hanging at eye level, wires leading under their dashboards like an IV drip. They are getting brain transplants from APR.
New German has shops in Aberdeen and Lorton, Virginia, says Benji Jones, a sales manager for nine years in the Virginia shop who is overseeing the 45-minute operations. "The tunes are very conservative and safe," he says. "This gentleman is at Stage II. He'll be making around 320-ish at the crank."
Jones has been in the scene for more than 15 years. He says he's been to every H2Oi except the first three. He drives a Stage III 2016 GTI he says makes 460 horsepower at the wheels which, given typical drivetrain power losses, works out to be more than 530 at the crankshaft. The sickness of this cannot be overstated. The GTI weighs about as much as a skateboard; 500 horsepower would be terrifying in twice the car. Jones says he flogs his car at "Track Day" events at Summit, Dominion Raceway, and Virginia International: "It does very well."
And Volkswagen itself does very well at the track, having won the manufacturer's cup in the past three years running in the FIA World Rally Championship.
VW is also the Rallycross champion, says Sean Maynard, National Consumer Events Coordinator for Volkswagen of America. Rallycross is like a mini-rally held inside a closed course. Think of a motocross track, but for chipped-up Beetles and Fiats.
"When we survey our enthusiasts—and they are obviously some of our biggest proponents, and passionate, and they go and tell other people about it," says Maynard, whose team appears at 14 "enthusiast events" and 12 races each season. "So we try to inspire other people to see the product."
This is done with driving games like Forza Horizon, which depicts VW Rallycross star Tanner Foust and his 560-horsepower Beetle.
And the company built five show cars this year, including a 2016 GTI on lowered springs and 19-inch Vossen wheels wrapped in purple, and a Golf that's lowered on old-school BBS rims and wrapped in a Bali green. They even put a Passat on air ride to make it ultra-low. But the cars are not leaned. "Cambering," Maynard says, "it's something that I don't understand. A lot of enthusiasts don't understand it. And it's dangerous."
Otherwise, Maynard says, "we try to reflect what the enthusiast community is doing in their vehicles."
So what is VW's relationship with aftermarket tuning shops like APR and Unitronic?
"It's umm. Kind of a… ah... We really don't," Maynard begins. "We're aware of each other, I guess is the best way to say it. Obviously doing anything to your engine tuning voids the warranty."
But, I press, these tuner guys can really wake up these engines.
"It's pretty cool," Maynard allows. "It's awesome that someone has a product that someone can use, that serves that market. But [the factory-stock VW] is a thing that has been certified by the government. So you void the warranty."
The ambivalence is palpable. Under the circumstances, VW certainly can't openly condone the breaking of environmental laws. On the other hand, VW needs these maniacs to rebuild the brand, so the company ships its cars with ceramic-coated bearings and lightweight piston rods to make them rev faster.
Look up the Golf R and click the tab labeled "horsepower."
"Let's cut to the chase," the ad copy reads. "292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque can take you from 0 to 60 in X.X [sic] seconds. It won't take much more to heat things up. (achieved with premium fuel)."
And at the footnote: "Always obey all speed and traffic laws."
None of this is new or surprising. Every car company has advertised its speed and performance, and few have actively discouraged tinkering. But VW is arguably more dependent on the enthusiast market than it was before diesel-gate: Here is the last market segment that understands the concept of Brand Loyalty. Here is the last market segment that understands what fun it is to break the law. Here is the only market segment that consistently has no fucks to give. Because racecar.
As of September sales of the base Golf were down 41 percent compared to 2015, while the hotter GTI was up 2.2 and the top-speed Golf R was up 14.9. In the same month, VW touted a speed record its Beetle set on a Utah salt flat:
"We are completely thrilled with the Beetle LSR's performance at Bonneville," said Dr. Hendrik Muth, Senior Vice President, Product Marketing and Strategy, Volkswagen of America, Inc. "The Beetle is not the most aerodynamic car in our portfolio, so running 205 mph is a testament to the power that can be made from the EA888 TSI four-cylinder engine. This feat truly underscores the sporty and pugnacious spirit of the Beetle."
Back at the Cayman Suites on Saturday afternoon, three guys are trying to pull the front axle out of a Jetta. One of them asks Dave if he has a triple square—a special socket for removing axle bolts. Dave fishes around the back of Sharpie and comes up with several of different sizes. He hands them over with his impact driver.
"I've been coming here three years, never had a problem," says Richard Ribeiro, who owns the car. "This time the axle broke on the way in." Or, anyway, it started sounding like it was ready to break. Drive axles are the Achilles heel of lowered rides. The extreme stance sets the constant velocity joints on an angle they don't like and puts pressure on the bearings. There are aftermarket CV joints that can handle the altered suspension travel, but they are expensive, so most cruisers change out their half-shafts about once a year. It was Ribeiro's time.
"You don't have to take the tie rod off," Dave advises. "Just take off the ball joint and then if you yank it hard enough…."
"It's not H2O if you don't see a Volkswagen broken down somewhere," Richard Ribiero says. His friend, Michael Ferreira, a compact dude in his mid 20s, has his hands greasy from the car's underside. The crew is in a jolly enough mood for being stranded. They have the spare part now and the tool to make the switch.
Ribeiro's car has a purple steering wheel in place of the stock, perfect, comfortable, leather-wrapped, ergonomically-engineered VW factory offering. The custom wheel is bolted on cold, with gaps around it and above the stock column, like Frankenstein's head grafted on, say, Beyonce's body.
Of course, the fancy wheel eliminates the most important air bag of the Jetta's six. "I don't have an air bag," Ribeiro laughs.
"He doesn't even have a horn," Ferreira pipes up from under the car.
"My horn is my exhaust," Ribeiro says, with evident pride.
With darkness falling, Sharpie's illegal yellow headlights are lit, playing the ticket lottery. The front spoiler scrapes hard as we pull into the liquor store parking lot. "Yeah," Dave says to a group standing there, "no fucks."
The bar at Bull On The Beach is packed with grey-haired locals—just the kind of folks who we were told fear and loathe the H2O crowd. But opinion is mixed: "I think it's great," says Sally Hawkins, an occupational therapist. "It brings business to the area." A tall man next to her allows that it doesn't bother him either, but he qualifies that.
"My son had his VW the first year they had it [in Ocean City]," the man recalls. "They had five or six of his friends in the yard. You should've seen it! Now it's different. They put all this bullshit on them. I call them lawn mowers."
Dave and his friends are in the "Mafia Booth." He says his buddy John's car runs low 12s on the quarter mile. He wants to get into the 11s and figures 400 horses at the wheels will get it.
"That's America," I say.
"Yeah," Dave says. "There are top fuel guys running 300 mph in the eighth mile. That's telling other countries, 'Don't fuck with us.' This is what we do for fun, in our spare time, so imagine what we'll do to you if we get pissed."
On the way out, Dave zip-ties Sharpie's bumper back on before continuing the cruise, and I think of Dean Moriarty.
I think of "Big Daddy" Ed Roth, a condoner of street racing who a half-century ago epitomized the outlaw, no-fucks-given attitude that today's hooners and tuners echo. Take "Mysterion," Roth's 1962 show-stopper. Built from scratch using Buick, Ford, and possibly trailer parts, the bubble-topped, fur-lined contraption sported a TV set, Bill The Cat asymmetrical headlights, and two gargantuan V8 engines. The dangerousness of the car cannot be overstated; Roth's build, quality, and engineering were so poor that the weight of its enormous engines repeatedly cracked the frame in transit—on the flatbed!
There is no one like Roth on the scene today.
Fame belongs to race drivers, and the people with the most Instagram followers. The builders are D.I.Y., with a subtle factory assist. And a lot of self-help: The dudes Dave lent his tools to will try to give him back more than he lent, even though they ended up putting the faulty axle back in, having bought the wrong spare.
"We were the real gangsters of the hotrod field," Roth told Tom Wolfe 55 years ago. "They keep telling us we have a rotten attitude. We have a different attitude, but that doesn't make us rotten."
Police are stationed every six blocks on the strip, lights flashing. A car goes by with women hanging out of both back windows. "Oh, that's dangerous," says Lacey, driving the GLI with admirable restraint as she tries to keep up with Dave, whose incessant, mufflerless revving cuts through the rest of the traffic noise. Dave revs the Sharpie and other drivers rev in response, like dogs barking. A lifted truck rolls by flying a "Don't Tread On Me" flag.