Event Report: Waterfest 13

Has Waterfest become too commercial? That’s one question that was posed to us as we sat atop the grandstands at Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ and looked out over the kingdom organizers of America’s largest VW and Audi enthusiast show have created – to the right, a large show field, to the left a burgeoning exhibition field, and in the center… one of the largest vendor areas Waterfest or any VW or Audi owner has ever seen. Now in its thirteenth year, Waterfest has grown from underground enthusiast event to major industry gathering, where bumping into Alex Roy and his Gumball 3000 Team Polizei group in their antenna and sticker-laden BMW M5 reminds us just how discovered this show has become.

Walking around the vendor area, it’s hard to argue that the weekend hasn’t been re-dressed in slick new corporate apparel. Whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable, but seeing the usual players with polished presentations suggests Waterfest is more a reflection of the industry as a whole. One-time startups themselves, companies with exhibits like Stratmosphere’s cool enthusiast lounge, attention-getting displays like AWE’s prize-spewing ice sculptures or APR’s new SEMA-show-car-inspired corporate look merchandised into clothing, car graphics and packaging for their products prove how far the whole scene has come. Even more, these three weren’t the only ones with an eye-catching new presentation… they’re simply the ones that come to mind.

Final tallies for visitors have yet to be published, but we’d be surprised if the numbers reported by Waterfest Productions weren’t in record territory again this year. A solid stream of cars and enthusiasts made their way into the track at Englishtown this past weekend, with cool temps and sunny skies.

Weather-wise, organizers couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

As always, there were new trends to be spotted and you didn’t need to be Demetri Martin to take notice. Black painted wheels of all varieties seemed to be the most common – from custom wide “steelies”, to aftermarket alloys and even refinished factory or OEM replica wheels. Gloss black rims were everywhere, even new wheels in vendor booths like that of RaderWerks with their alternative finish – a different spin on the replica wheel business.

Speaking of OEM, the OEM plus look is definitely gaining momentum. From new replica wheels like the first Hartmann Gallardo replicas we spotted on a white Mk V GTI, the many Mk V cars now running 19-inch Phaeton Helios wheels, new R32 bumpers on Jettas and GTIs to even a 4-door Mk IV Golf 1.8T with full R32 appearance package and large BBS LMs, there were plenty showing that could-be-factory look.

Our particular favorite had to be a rather clean but nondescript looking silver Corrado with subtle front and rear TDI badges that we spotted running down the Raceway Park’s drag strip. Betrayed also by the engine note, the car was a strong runner and one of the coolest engine swaps to be found at the show.

Then there was the full-on factory look… but with a twist. Previously European-only cars like the second-generation Golf Country off-roader to one or two third generation Golf Variant wagons were also spotted around the field.

The 2.0T is also now attracting the same amount of attention from the aftermarket as the old 1.8T. APR brought out their GTI SEMA show car with the Alabama-based company’s Stage III kit, VF engineering their own staged kits co-developed with partners GIAC and AWE Tuning, and REVO their new staged kits co-developed with Autotech.

Even though OEMplus has grown in popularity, cars displaying all the aftermarket has to offer never go out of style at shows like Waterfest. First-gen Rabbits, Jettas and Caddys seem to be dwindling in numbers, though those that show are evolving from cheap transportation to thoughtfully (and expensively) restored classic. Mk 3 and Mk 4 cars remain the darlings of the modified scene, especially as they become more affordable, leaving more money on the table for modifications. Still, even new Mk 5 cars are common enough now, the aftermarket offering much more than it did at this time last year. Amongst these latest-gen cars were the stunning three SEMA show cars: Volkswagen’s R-GTI, Neuspeed’s Thunder Bunny and APR’s GTI Stage III. Also not-to-be-missed was a very subtle, grey turbocharged 3.2-liter VR6 Eos from HPA. The latter had us waxing nostalgic for the old days when tuners would build a car and show it publicly for the first time at Waterfest.

So is Waterfest too big… too corporate? We’ll agree that it’s growing, but not that the growth is a bad thing. No, it’s no longer the gathering of enthusiasts in a parking lot that it once was (that now happens at a nearby Chili’s on Saturday night of show weekend by the way). Instead, the show is evolving into something more akin to Germany’s Essen Motor Show. The Vendor area, clearly the quickest growing section, attracts enthusiasts who march in and then out, like ants, back out to their cars and carrying newly purchased parts over their heads. It’s where you need to go if you want to see just about anyone or anything in the industry.

Waterfest also offers much of the same old same old. There’s the drag racing, the autocross and the show-outside-the-show that is the parking lot. There’s the overflowing exhibition field that catches many of the quality non-show cars whose owners don’t care to subject them to the wilds of the parking lot all day. That field also plays home to clubs like the local Cool Water owner’s club, Audizine.com forum members and the Delaware Valley Audi Group.

There’s the same range of show cars, from clean to kitsch. The folks at Will-Call still hassle you if you ask for extra vendor passes, even if you’re Gumball celebrity Alex Roy or title sponsor APR. To these women baking away in the heat of that tin-roofed shack, we’re all equal.

Yes, Waterfest has changed in many ways. It’s evolved, and that’s progress. Romantics may complain that the grass-roots nature of early events has gone, though there are many shows which fill that void today. Like the New York region to which Waterfest has always catered, this show may be big and brash, but it also offers something for everyone. That’s why we love it, and that’s why we return year-after-year.

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