Race Weekend Central

Reel Racing: ‘NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience,’ 20 Years Later

On Tuesday (March 12), I randomly thought about NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience, which was the first film I ever saw in a theater.

It was in the Science Museum of Virginia’s “The Dome” in Richmond, Va., and my parents and I went to a 3 p.m. showing on April 7, 2004.

So an epiphany hit me that, man, it has been 20 years since that released, hasn’t it? I decided to check the release date. It was March 12. I was thinking about the film on the exact anniversary. It’s like divine intervention for me to realize that and write this article.

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Just two days after the Oscars concluded and the magnificent Oppenheimer took home seven awards; the amazing Emma Stone won a 50/50 race between herself and Lily Gladstone for Best Actress; Godzilla Minus One won visual effects and the movie year that featured Barbie and the eventual Best Picture winner in a “Barbenheimer” double feature that took the world by storm and brought theaters to life … I’m already thinking back two decades.

On that note, Oppenheimer‘s IMAX release was a cornerstone moment for movies since the COVID-19 pandemic. Between that in 2023 and Top Gun: Maverick in 2022 and outside of maybe Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the Stop Making Sense rerelease and Dune: Part Two, I think the medium has experienced rejuvenation. IMAX has been around for a long time, but with how big recent releases in the format have been and especially now with a Best Picture winner having been shot as such, this is a watershed moment for those screens.

So happy 20th anniversary, NASCAR 3D! Let’s talk about it.

First up, the basics: it’s 48 minutes long. Simon Wincer directed it, and his main credits consist of directing Free Willy, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles and a few other things, including some Young Indiana Jones stuff. Distributed by Warner Bros., it’s narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, had a soundtrack and DVD release and was featured on Johnny Sauter‘s car both ahead of its release date at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 7 and afterward at Sonoma Raceway on May 2 (all before Sauter was replaced in the Richard Childress Racing No. 30 after 13 races).

The biggest takeaway of this film is that moviegoers got a theatrical documentary covering NASCAR. Blink of an Eye and Rowdy got very limited, mostly one-night-only runs. Most other NASCAR-themed docs are TV originals like Refuse to Lose, Unrivaled and, most recently, I Am Kevin Harvick (which was very good).

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This movie, if it did indeed wide-release on March 12, played for almost a month in theaters if the date on that ticket is indicative of anything. That’s a hugely long theatrical run for a below-hour-long documentary on a sport not as popular as it is today compared to when it came out.

I can think of several films last year — The Iron Claw (robbed of Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor, by the way, since I bawled for the last 45 minutes of that movie), It’s a Wonderful Knife, Ferrari, Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, possibly Asteroid City — that had theatrical runs of similar length or insanely short durations. Feature-length Hollywood movies in today’s day and age that this outran two decades before.

2004 had some damn good stuff: Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Spider-Man 2, Shaun of the Dead, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Collateral (which Robert Nagle, Ferrari‘s stunt coordinator, worked on with director Michael Mann. I interviewed Nagle in December), Sideways. Other sports documentaries like Nine Innings from Ground Zero. But this one will always hold a special place for me.

There are a ton of shots of Jeff Green‘s No. 30 AOL car from the 2003 racing campaign. Though on rewatch, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it — I didn’t notice it very much anytime I’ve watched it, though it’s pretty prevalent on the poster (that big-ass AOL logo is almost front and center behind Jeff Gordon‘s car instead of, like, Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson or most anyone else).

I think the doc does a very solid job of mixing footage captured during real races, be it on-track action or pit stops, with staged moments that bring the viewer closer to the action without taking them too much out of it with the realism. You got ZZ Top’s “La Grange” in there, some awesome behind-the-scenes shots, discussions of the fanbase, breakdowns of the safety of the cars … it’s all surface-level, yes, but to a point where at the time it feels right.

I still need the diecast of the Sauter car, but I did finally pick up the DVD of the movie recently — complete with its lenticular slipcover. When did those stop being a thing? I remember Moonfall (shoutout my buddy, Ryan) having one a couple years back but not much in recent memory that had that kind of packaging.

Let’s get another NASCAR documentary like this on IMAX screens. The Regal Cinemas Short Pump IMAX theater 20 minutes from my house? I’ll be there there all night, every night watching a 2024 documentary on the sport shot in the best mode of filmmaking we have.

But for now, please enjoy the trailer on YouTube from the official IMAX account, in all its horrifically low-quality 144p glory:

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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Kevin in SoCal

Thanks for the reminder, I had forgotten about this too.

Drew

I’ve already watched the NASCAR imax movie.

Bill B

I remember the big deal about IMAX back in that era (and this NASCAR film in particular), was that it had a 3D presentation that actually worked really well. This was before every multiplex in the country was able to project a reliable 3D presentation. In 2004, you pretty much had to go to an IMAX theater for 3D. And there weren’t a lot of them around.
I’m sure there were a few before, but the first movie I remember seeing in 3D at a non-IMAX theater was Jim Carey in “A Christmas Carol” which came out in Nov 2009. That’s 5 years after this NASCAR movie. (FYI: Avatar came out a few weeks later toward the end of December 2009).
The only IMAX screen in my area at that time was one at the Baltimore Science Center. Not to long before that only places like Disney had them. I remember being wowed by the 3D effects (my only experience with 3D prior to that involved red and green glasses that never really worked).

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
Deacon Blues

Thank you for this, Adam – phenomenal film, great memories!

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