Go, Speed Racer

Careening around a racetrack at 200 miles per hour with Michael Andretti is no Sunday drive. In fact, as he downshifts to take a curve, you may find yourself hitting a brake pedal that isn't there, thanks to the IMAX film Super Speedway.

Featuring surround-sound audio and Doppler radar-like visuals, the giant-screen production puts viewers right in the driver's seat. So when Andretti loses control during a test drive, you're spinning with him as he calmly countersteers, stops the car, then guns it back into motion with a pavement-searing screech. Hope you remembered your Dramamine.

This is more than just some rollercoaster ride. You're not only in the car; your head fills with the roar of engines as other racers whiz past Andretti, the son of racing legend Mario Andretti. And when he's juking and jiving to get ahead of the pack, the theater feels like it's on wheels. But when the 60-by-80-foot screen fills with a closeup of Michael Andretti's face, taking you deeper into the human nostril than you ever could have imagined, it's obvious that IMAX technology has its limitations.

The 40-minute film does, too. While the along-for-the-ride action -- filmed during the 1996 racing season -- is intense, the movie takes a full ten minutes to start its engine. Put together by Open Wheel Productions Inc., the film opens with an extensive tour of the idyllic Andretti farm in England. Included among the residents, just in case you're interested, is the family pig, Martini.

The film's narrator is the well-known actor Paul Newman, who for years raced on the amateur circuit. Today he's co-owner of the Newman-Hass racing team, which is Michael Andretti's sponsor. Throughout the film viewers are provided with behind-the-scenes insights into professional racing.

As the team prepares for its upcoming season, its members are seen designing, building, and testing racecars. A subplot involves the restoration of one of Mario Andretti's 1964 roadsters from his racing days. While this kind of background may be interesting to racecar fanatics, it's only so much carbon monoxide to your typical thrill-seekers.

The reward for wading through such stuff is spine-tingling racing scenes, provided by three IMAX views: from the driver's seat, the hood, and the rear spoiler of Michael Andretti's car. ESPN provides car-camera views, but unless your TV screen is the size of a warehouse wall, they don't come close to these. So sit back, enjoy the ride, and don't forget to buckle up.

-- John Ferri

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John Ferri