Cars that go boom 

A review of NASCAR: The IMAX Experience

click to enlarge Alan Smith, record holder at Pueblo Motorsport and beyond.
  • Alan Smith, record holder at Pueblo Motorsport and beyond.

*NASCAR: The IMAX Experience (PG)
Warner Bros.

By now you probably know that NASCAR is the most popular spectator sport in America. In the 56 years since transitioning from an occupational hazard faced by backwoods bootleggers to an organized body known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, the sport has become middle America's unofficial pastime.

Pundits and politicos have picked up on this, noting that NASCAR's ascendancy is indicative of a larger cultural fault line between red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) America. Certainly it was no accident that President Bush appeared at the Daytona 500 this election year to say, "Gentleman, start your engines."

Politics aside, there seems to be something remarkable about the NASCAR divide in that you either worship guys like Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, or you've no idea who they are. So in the interest of bridging the NASCAR gap, the Independent invited local NASCAR champ Alan Smith to offer his thoughts on NASCAR: The IMAX Experience, now playing at Cinemark.

The film is a 47-minute NASCAR For Dummies primer that includes a brief history of the sport, short profiles of its legends (Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson) and brief exegesis of its technical underpinnings. Where most IMAX films place spectacle over storytelling, Simon Wincer (Free Willy) manages to combine the two effectively. Of course, there's no shortage of vroom and boom-- with plenty of point-of-view shots taken inside the speeding cars, and sprawling shots of surging racetrack crowds to rival Triumph of the Will. All of this stresses one basic theme: This sport is HUGE.

The movie also makes interesting excursions like an all too brief glimpse at the workings of the pit crews. As both drivers and mechanics repeatedly stress, NASCAR is a team sport. Nowhere is this more evident than in the organic synchronicity of these seven-person crews, who train year-round to be able to swap out a set of tires, load gas and send their driver on his way in approximately 13 seconds.

The grandeur of IMAX, not to mention 3-D, doesn't exactly lend itself to subtle filmmaking. That said, Wincer's film could do without its unabashed jingoism. Every frame seems to include an American flag more mammoth than the next. Worse still are the incessant visual and discursive plugs for AOL Broadband, one of the film's co-producers.

Nevertheless, Smith gave the film a thumbs up even if none of it was news to someone who's been racing for the better part of 20 years. Smith, who holds track records at the Pueblo Motorsport Park and beyond, lays no claims at being film savvy ("I probably haven't been to the movies in five years.") but he thought the film was an accurate depiction of what NASCAR's all about.

Perhaps Wincer's film could've benefited by following the journalistic maxim of "follow the money." Professional NASCAR races typically find a car blazing through $15,000 worth of tires during a single afternoon. While politicians may exploit NASCAR's populism, scant attention is paid to the fact that it's extremely cost prohibitive. (Or maybe there's a NASCAR equivalent of Pop Warner that I'm not aware of.)

Smith notes that the only way to make a pile of money in racing is to start with an even bigger pile. His habit, he says, runs north of $15,000 a year defrayed somewhat by a sponsorship from Colorado Liquor Mart and his part-time employer, Lanier's Speed Shop.

While Smith may win a few grand at races in Kansas, Las Vegas and New Mexico, it never evens out in his favor. Yet he continues because it's the sport he loves.

Talk to NASCAR junkies and they'll speak of a mysterious, perhaps primal love of power and noise. Several drivers interviewed in the film remarked that witnessing the simultaneous firing of 43 engines, each nearly 800 horsepower, is an adrenaline rush that never goes away.

As Smith puts it: "43 cars going 180 miles per-hour, all six inches apart. What more do you want?"

-- John Dicker

Cinemark IMAX

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