If you find yourself in central New Jersey in mid-July, you can count on two things: 1.) it will undoubtedly be hot and humid, and 2.) the place will be crawling with modded VWs and Audis of every type. After 22 years, Waterfest — the seminal watercooled/performance Volkswagen event that launched countless imitators — still draws throngs of loyalists from points afield for the annual weekend of automotive revelry.
This year's two-day bacchanal, officially July 16 and 17 and once again held at Raceway Park near Englishtown, NJ, followed established patterns laid down by years of routine. Saturday was largely an active participant day, with events including autocross school, dyno sessions, and drag racing. Vendors were set up to sell their wares, though the first day never really has the spectator and shopper draw of the second.
What ramblers there were on Saturday afternoon were largely rinsed away by a 45-minute deluge that pretty much drew all activity to a halt. It's been several years since rain put such a significant damper on Waterfest, but it's certainly not an uncommon occurrence. And at least it didn't affect the main event. Afterfest, the officially sanctioned Saturday night party intended to keep the local cops from writing unlimited citations for uncivil behavior, as in the years before its inception.
Come Sunday morning, only a few shallow puddles remained, but otherwise the venue was refreshed by the storm as the sun rose on E-town. Show cars flowed in by the hundreds, as promised. The day was filled with heads-up drag racing, an autocross competition, and that ever-popular spectacle of automotive Schadenfreud, the burnout contest, not to mention an even more brutal tug-of-war contest between two Golfs.
As the daytime temps rolled into the mid-90s, the vendor rows filled up with shoppers, with dozens of wheel, lighting, exhaust and performance dealers peddling their goods. Heavy hitters like APR and Unitronic were busy reprogramming ECUs and installing fresh hardware while customers waited.
This year's show field must have looked like a spilled bag of Skittles from above, as enthusiasts have clearly embraced the use of bold color as a signature element of their builds. Striking greens, yellows and oranges dominated the customs, with shocks of pink and vibrant blues rounding out the palette. Interiors still expressed a lot of detailing, a trend we can appreciate. Mechanically speaking, big horsepower is always in fashion, while the fleeting-fame of bagged suspensions and poked/stretched/stanced rollers still outnumbered, at least for now, the emerging trend of motorsport inspired builds.
Beyond the wild stuff, there seemed to be a growing appreciation for well-kept originals, especially in first-gen watercooled models like Sciroccos and Rabbits. Volkswagen of America proudly parked a clean Mk I Scirocco in its massive display, albeit behind its Global Rally Cross racecars. As the scene continues to mature (perhaps a majority of the crowd wasn't even around when the first Waterfest took place), it's likely these early survivors may actually get the respect they deserve.
While the show field looked to be nearly as full as in years past, there's no denying certain elements of the event saw lower participation this year. In previous years, there was a track day event; that's gone. The autocross was lightly attended, with non-VAG vehicles making up a healthy slice of the field. Drag racing was lighter than in the recent past, and the burnout contest lured just three cars into the arena. The vendor lanes, too, were more loosely spaced, and the swap meet area was a mere fraction of its former self.
Waterfest 22 proved there's still plenty of vitality in the VW/Audi tuning scene, and it remains a must-attend event for enthusiasts in the immediate and densely populated Eastern Seaboard area. To keep Waterfest itself just as relevant, it may be time to rethink the format and consider a one-day event. Regardless, we'll be back for Waterfest 23 next year.