A rip-roaring spin around NASCAR track

March 12, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

Let's get one bit of bad news out of the way first. To watch NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience, the new movie about stock-car racing that opens today at the Maryland Science Center, you need to wear these clunky 3-D glasses that make you look like a member of the Rat Pack sunning poolside at a Palm Springs hotel, circa 1952.

In fact, after settling into my seat, it was all I could do not to snap my fingers for a waiter, order a gin and tonic and fire up a Lucky Strike.

But wearing the funky glasses is worth it: This is a visually stunning experience, a vivid, behind-the-scenes look at NASCAR racing, which claims to be the most popular spectator sport in the country, with 75 million fans.

The 51-minute, documentary-style film, directed by Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove, Free Willy) and narrated by actor Kiefer Sutherland, focuses on the superstar drivers who give NASCAR its glamour and sex appeal, the crack racing teams that keep the expensive cars running 38 weeks of the year, and the devoted fans who flock to tracks at places such as Daytona Beach, Fla., Talladega, Ala., and Bristol, Tenn.

The 3D effect on a screen that's five stories high, and the state-of-the-art surround-sound, captures the authentic feel of these powerful race cars as they roar around the track at nearly 200 mph, inches from each other while drivers look for the tiniest opening in the pack - an opening that could lead to a win, or disaster.

At one point during a wreck, a tire flies off a car and comes bouncing crazily toward you; only the most sedated members of the audience will fail to duck.

In another memorable sequence, the film shows the incredible synchronization of the pit crews, who swarm all over each car, gas it, change all four tires, and make mechanical repairs in less than 14 seconds, while trying not to get run over.

The movie opens with a cute chase scene that illustrates the roots of stock-car racing: a couple of young moonshiners trying to out-run the cops in the mountains of North Carolina.

But even though the sport derived from law-breaking hillbillies dodging the feds and local sheriffs, a quote from NASCAR legend Richard Petty seems to best get at the heart of its appeal.

"There is no doubt about precisely when folks began racing each other in automobiles," Petty intones. "It was the day they built the second automobile."

The sport has come a long way since its humble beginnings, though; now it's a huge, multibillion-dollar business. NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience offers an up-close look at the high technology that goes into today's race cars and the sophisticated marketing techniques used to sell the sport to the masses. The film details some of the endless media interviews, public appearances and autograph sessions the drivers participate in each race week.

Mostly, though, this is a sensory exploration of the loudest, fastest, most dangerous sport in the world. And seen in three dimensions, on a towering IMAX screen with 12,000 watts of surround-sound, it makes the sport come alive.

NASCAR 3D

Where: IMAX Theater, Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.

When: Four to five shows daily, starting at noon; through May

Admission: $9.75 (or $11.75, including museum admission)

Call: 410-685-5225 or visit www.mdsci.org

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