Big, fast, noisy - and just right

In the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Museum, next to the racetrack at Darlington, S.C., they have a simulator that allows you to crawl into the "cockpit" of one of Richard Petty's cars. The King then takes you for a ride around "the track too tough to tame" as you look out at a movie projected on a screen in front of you.

This is better than that.

In the King's Dominion amusement park, near Washington, D.C., they have a ride called Days of Thunder in which you sit in a seat that is supposed to be the driver's seat of a NASCAR racing stock car. The seat tilts as the car goes up on the track's banking. As you watch the projected movie, you are drafting up behind Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt, and then slingshot past for the win.

This is better than that, too.

Recently I attended an advance showing of "NASCAR 3D ...The IMAX Experience" at the Pacific Science Center, and it totally blew me away. The film opened to the public on March 12. The comment I made, shortly after seeing it, was "That's the bitchin'est IMAX ever."

IMAX delivers an amazing reproduction of big and fast and noisy. It is like the technology and the subject were made for each other. NASCAR, which has become the nation's most popular spectator sport, has almost demanded a medium this spectacular to properly tell its story.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland narrates the 50-minute film.

The history of NASCAR is touched on briefly with the cliché segment of the moonshiners outrunning and outdriving a pair of frustrated cops down a rural dirt road. Stunt drivers did the actual driving in this pursuit. (An inside joke: If you're a devoted, knowledgeable fan and you look closely during the quick in-car shots, you can recognize that under the phony sideburns of the bootleggers are two of the hottest NASCAR drives on the 2003 circuit, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. The cop supposedly driving the cop car is Mike Helton, the pres-ident of NASCAR, and Gary Nelson, NASCAR's managing director of competition, plays his "deputy."

The film pays homage to past legendary heroes Richard Petty and Junior Johnson, and of course bows to Dale Earnhardt - but hey, you've got to remember your market. There are also great shots of some old museum pieces they got out to run around a track again.

I particularly remember one of Richard's all-blue Plymouths - I think it was a 1971 or 1972 model. I think they had one of Junior's old Waltrip Chevies, too.

Boy, 3D has come a long way from cardboard goggles holding pieces of blue and red cellophane in front of your eyes. You now wear IMAX 3D electronic liquid-crystal shutter glasses that look kind of like welder's goggles. A strap around your head holds a piece of polarized glass about an inch away from your eyes. You've got plenty of room to wear a pair of glasses under it.

The IMAX 3D projector simultaneously projects two strips of large-format 15/70 film for left- and right-eye images of each scene onto the screen. The special glasses sense an infrared signal from the top of the six-story-high screen, and the shutters blink at the amazing rate of 48 times per second. This is so fast it's unnoticeable, and the special glasses enable your brain to fuse the two images together to create a single, pristine, larger-than-life, three-dimensional image.

The IMAX 3D screen is covered with a special silver paint that reflects twice the amount of light as a regular movie screen, and it bends around you a little so that you also are utilizing your peripheral vision.

The massive IMAX 3D camera is one of the highest-resolution image-capturing devices in the world. The dollar value of its fish-eye stereo lens is equivalent to the dollar value of two NASCAR 850-horsepower racecar engines, or about $20,000.

The 15/70 film format is 10 times larger than a conventional 35mm film and three times larger than a standard 70mm film.

Because the camera is the size of a bar refrigerator that weighs more than 600 pounds, in-car filming presented special problems. Jack Roush and his team at Roush Racing built a special NASCAR camera car with removable panels to enable six different camera positions while the camera-mounted vehicle hit speeds in excess of 165 miles per hour.

The IMAX 3D camera takes 17 minutes to load and shoots only three minutes of film at a time. Because of this, there is no actual in-car race footage. But there are plenty of scenes with well-known cars and drivers running within a foot of the camera vehicle.

There's an old NASCAR saying that goes: "Rubbin' is racin'." Well, you don't put a pack of today's top NASCAR drivers out on a track together without a little rubbing going on, even if it's against the camera car.

The action on the screen is enhanced by a superb, specially designed, six-channel surround sound system comprised of 44 custom-designed speakers that extract 12,000 watts of pure digital surround sound. You wanna hear the pack come out of turn two? You will.

Director Simon Wincer ("Lonesome Dove," "Free Willy") set out to re-create the NASCAR experience. He and his crew filmed at many of the 2003 races, and their footage includes drivers Tony Stewart (No. 20); 2003 Champion Matt Kenseth (7); Jimmie Johnson (8); third-generation NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8); Jeff Gordon (24); a four-time series Champion; 2002 Rookie of the Year Ryan Newman (12) and 2000 series Champion Bobby Labonte (8); as well as many other legendary faces who are also key to the past, present and future of the sport.

Filming was also done at the home garages of many teams as you get an inside look at the car building and preparation needed to run the circuit. Says director Wincer: "Audiences will see sparks and metal shavings flying at them as mechanics grind steel, weld and drill out car parts using hi-tech, computer-controlled machines."

All that was missing was the smell of hot oil and rubber and having a hot-dog stand behind the seats.

One of the things that car enthusiasts do, or for that matter any hobbyists, is to get real picky about any medium that mentions their hobby. We know where all the mistakes are in any racing movie and can tell you about all the errors in Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen car songs.

I didn't spot anything that was wrong during my first viewing of "NASCAR 3D ... The IMAX Experience." Maybe I'll spot something the second, third or fourth time I see it, but it won't be a major glitch. I walked out of the theater with a BIG smile on my face.

I give it two thumbs up.

When he's not coming out of turn two, freelance columnist Gary McDaniel resides in Magnolia.

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