Friday, March 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Burn rubber: in the driver's seat for IMAX NASCAR thrills

Special to The Seattle Times

The nearest NASCAR road course is in Sonoma, Calif. (some 800 miles from Seattle), while the nearest traditional oval NASCAR track is in Fontana, Calif. (a whopping 1,200 miles way). But for people in the Pacific Northwest who feel the need for (watching) speed, there's suddenly an alternative: the new IMAX film, "NASCAR 3D," now showing at the Pacific Science Center.

For those who don't know much about NASCAR, the 47-minute film is a beginner's course. We learn that in the dim past, bootleggers and moonshiners, who were forever outracing the cops with their souped-up cars, began to race each other for sport.

National standards were established in December 1947 when 35 race promoters, including "Big" Bill France, met at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., and set up the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

In 1959, the Daytona International Speedway opened, and a high-banking oval racetrack replaced the long stretches of sand the race drivers were used to negotiating. NASCAR was on its way to becoming the self-proclaimed No. 1 spectator sport in America.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"NASCAR 3D," narrated by Kiefer Sutherland. Directed by Simon Wincer. 47 minutes. Rated PG for several mild car crashes. Pacific Science Center IMAX Theater.

Standards are strict. Each car has to be a certain height and weight. The engines are subject to numerous rules regarding materials and angles of inclination. These specially designed engines can reach 800 horsepower and 9,000 rpm. There's very little that's "stock" in stock-car racing anymore.

For those who know all this and are impatiently tapping their foot waiting for me to get to the good stuff, here's the good stuff: "NASCAR 3D" is as close as most of us will get — at least until the next technological leap — to driving a race car.

The huge IMAX 3-D cameras were placed directly on the track, in the passenger's seat and behind the driver's seat. Race cars zoom past us. We zoom past other race cars seemingly from behind the wheel.

The film builds toward a race at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama; but of course the heavy IMAX cameras can't really be part of a race any more than they can be strapped onto Peyton Manning during a football game. The race is fake, even if the experience is not.

And how to deal with all the NASCAR history and car crashes? Director Simon Wincer ("Phar Lap," "Free Willy") places the non-3-D footage within smaller 3-D boxes on the screen. One car crash that was filmed in IMAX 3-D ends with a dislocated tire bounding right toward us. Duck!

Will "NASCAR 3D" win the sport new fans? Perhaps, but not me. Its rampant corporate sponsorship is messy and distracting, and the athleticism necessary to triumph is still less intriguing (perhaps because it's less visible) than the athleticism necessary to triumph in, say, baseball.

Yes, drivers need quick reflexes, and courage and determination and recklessness. Dale Earnhardt, before he died in a car crash three years ago, was known as "The Intimidator," which just happens to be one of the many nicknames for pitcher Randy Johnson. Earnhardt's number "3" is as eulogized as Babe Ruth's.

But none of this made me want to head down to Fontana anytime soon. For fans, though, the film will be a very short, very noisy version of heaven.

Erik Lundegaard:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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