MOTEGI, Japan -- Japanese driver Takuma Sato believes this weekend's Indy Japan -- the last time the IndyCar series will race in his native country -- will be more than a farewell race.
The event will be welcome for an area devastated by the March 11 tsunami and nuclear crisis.
The Twin Ring Motegi circuit is only 93 miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex where three reactors went into meltdown after their backup generators were destroyed.
The quake damaged the 1.5-mile oval at Twin Ring, so Sunday's race will be held instead on the recently repaved 14-turn road course.
"It's absolutely necessary to race here especially after what happened on March 11 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami," Sato said. "Japan needs energy and IndyCar has great energetic excitement."
Other drivers have been less enthusiastic. Danica Patrick, who posted her only victory in the IndyCar Series in Japan in 2008, expressed concern about racing so close to the nuclear complex, saying she was worried about the radiation levels in the food and water and the possibility of aftershocks.
A strong earthquake registering magnitude 6.2 struck off Japan's northeastern coast Thursday. The quake was centered off the coast of Ibaraki and was felt in Motegi.
Even before the earthquake and tsunami in March, the Indy Japan received bad news when Mobilityland Corp., a wholly owned unit of Honda Motor Co., announced in February that due to the economic downturn, the 2011 race will be its last IndyCar race at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit.
"Unfortunately, this is the final event," Sato said. "Although the oval was damaged, they needed to go to the road course which is a great commitment from the series, the teams and the drivers. I felt much better when I heard the Indy Japan will continue for 2011. This will be a great moment for me."
The decision by Mobilityland was the latest setback to auto racing in Japan as the country's automakers look to cut costs and focus on their core business.
Honda and Toyota pulled out of Formula One in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
Citing similar concerns to Toyota and Honda, fellow Japanese automakers Subaru and Suzuki pulled out of the World Rally Championship before the 2009 season.
Sato, who joined the IndyCar series in 2010 after a stint in F1, has struggled this season and is 14th in the standings with 262 points. His best finish was fourth at the Honda Indy last month.
Sunday's race will play a crucial role in deciding this year's championship.
Team Penske's Will Power won the Baltimore Grand Prix on Sept. 4 for his second straight victory and sixth of the season to move within five points of series leader Dario Franchitti with three races left.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press