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MOVIE REVIEW

'NASCAR' delivers a fast-paced ride

In this politically important Year of the NASCAR Fan, add IMAX to the list of marketing vehicles trumpeting "the number one spectator sport in America." As if auto racing needed the added exposure.

The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, which boasts 75 million followers and commercial sponsorships ranging from Oscar Mayer to Viagra, already has the attention of network television, presidential candidates, and news outlets that formerly dismissed it as a lowbrow part of the corndog circuit. Now some of your favorite professional drivers can also be seen on a screen towering seven stories high, rumbling around the track at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour and speaking to you as though they were standing inches away.

So what if the look, sound, and feel of "NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience" is that of one big car-racing commercial? Is the Super Bowl any less exploitive? (The defense calls Janet Jackson to the stand. . . .)

"NASCAR 3D" will delight fans of auto racing. It will delight them enough to make them redirect some of the cash they were saving for a Jeff Gordon T-shirt or a Tony Stewart hat, maybe even multiple times over the coming months. And if it's not exactly a "movie" they're buying a ticket to, it is at least an "experience" that has to be labeled exhilarating.

Directed by Simon Wincer ("Free Willy") and featuring the expertise of large-format cinematography wizard James Neihouse ("Space Station 3D"), "NASCAR 3D" really does put viewers right in the center of the action. It allows you to witness the close flurry of a pit crew, feel the sparks flying in race shops constructing custom engines and chassis, and crawl inside the claustrophobic cockpit of a car while it's negotiating a lap at high speed.

Even if you were lucky enough to score a spectator spot on the Daytona 500 infield, you'd never see all that the filmmakers capture here, because they go so far as to haul their bulky $3 million cameras halfway up the steep bank of the track to make you feel as though you're actually lying on the asphalt as the cars whiz past. There are some amazing technical achievements here -- not to mention personal acts of bravery -- that deserve every accolade they will prompt.

As for the less mechanical side: Kiefer Sutherland is our celebrity narrator, cruising capably if unstrenuously through a scattershot primer of the sport and its key players. Most of the script will be too obvious and superficial for diehard fans, and too random/detached to sway newcomers.

It's very cool to be invited right into the sea of mobile homes and grazing crowds, but 3-D can only present the physical illusion of depth; it can't make you feel the heart and soul of the place as intimate moviemaking can. "NASCAR," unlike last year's Titanic 3-D offering ("Ghosts of the Abyss"), doesn't quite achieve that winning combination of both.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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