Billed as America's largest spectator sport, touring stock car race spectacle gets supersized. Large format and three-dimensional technology do little to heighten the excitement of the races. Docu is less a film with real behind-the-scenes insight and more a serviceable, if routine, promo package. Should prove popular at IMAX venues.

Billed as America’s largest spectator sport, the touring stock car race spectacle gets supersized in “NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience.” Surprisingly, the large format and three-dimensional technology do little to heighten the excitement of the races. In the end, docu is less a film with real behind-the-scenes insight and more a serviceable, if routine, promo package for the (very) bigscreen. Nonetheless, featurette should prove a popular attraction at IMAX venues.

Opening offers short dramatization of 1940s bootleggers outrunning cops in their customized car — reportedly the inglorious beginning of American stock car racing. A few years after WWII, entrepreneur “Big Bill” France built Daytona Beach Raceway, the first track specially designed for stock car racing.

Brief appreciation of all-time champs such as Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Dale Earnhardt is followed by visit to “Race City USA,” Moorsville, N.C. There, the $150,000 cars are designed and assembled according to strict NASCAR regulations. Safety concerns, the amazing eye-blink coordination of pit-stop crews, setup procedures at tracks across the U.S., etc., are considered fleetingly.

Trouble is, helmer Simon Wincer (“Free Willy,” “Lonesome Dove” miniseries, recent IMAX drama “The Young Black Stallion”) doesn’t focus on anything long enough to stir genuine interest. Co-producing input of NASCAR is probably responsible for a politic tenor that verges on the bland and white-washy.

Sports journos, engineers, drivers, their spouses, et al. are heard mostly in voiceover sound bites; individual personalities don’t get enough screentime to demonstrate why they’re considered colorful. One soundtrack snatch of Lynyrd Skynyrd aside, pic isn’t allowed to have any fun with the madding-crowd nature of NASCAR fans, who descend en masse in temporary trailer park cities at each event. Some good-natured humor might have enlivened a neutral p.o.v. that pretends there’s no disconnect between Lee Ann Rimes wailing “The Star Spangled Banner” and corporate logos so pervasive it’s a wonder the star racers haven’t simply been renamed Viagra, Home Depot and Pillsbury Doughboy.

A more striking disappointment is pic’s inability to lend the races much visceral intensity, despite the nearly 200 mph speeds and extreme crash risks. Aerial track views are most vivid; those on the ground curiously lack anticipated you-are-there thrills, apart from one (trick?) shot of a tire flying right at the camera.

Veteran IMAX lenser James Neihouse does pro work, but inspiration is missing. The 3-D here is top-drawer, but it too adds little. The images that benefit the most from the added depth of field of the 3-D are those showing the vast scale and clutter of the track facilities rather than the races themselves. Archival footage of past achievements and crashes is, of course, shown flat.

Keifer Sutherland as narrator proves a dull, borderline bored-sounding guide. A folksier, more enthusiastic voice would have helped. Tech aspects are excellent. It’s worth noting that, similar to gender breakdown within the sport itself, pic’s crew includes very few women.

Nascar 3D: The Imax Experience

Production

A Warner Bros. release of an IMAX Corp. production in association with NASCAR Inc. and NASCAR Digital Entertainment Ltd. Produced by Lorne Orleans, Douglas "Disco" Hylton. Executive producer, Neil Goldberg. Directed by Simon Wincer. Narration written by Mark Bechtel.

Crew

Camera (color, IMAX, 3-D), James Neihouse; editor, Terry Blythe; music, Eric Colvin; supervising sound editor (15/70 Stereo), Peter Thillaye; consultant, Jeff MacGregor; assistant director, Bob Donaldson. Reviewed at Loews Metreon Theatre, San Francisco, March 3, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 49 MIN.

With

Narrator: Keifer Sutherland
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