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Honda looking to get back in swing

The Hondas didn't fare so well last year at Long Beach, or most of the season. But Charlie Kimball, front, and Graham Rahal are ready to give it a go this weekend. Robert Laberge/Getty Images

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It's a weekend of milestones at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Not for the LBGP itself, which will be run for the 40th time next year. But two other historic marks will be hit this weekend in the Roar by the Shore. Dario Franchitti, arguably the IZOD IndyCar Series' top star, will make his 250th Indy car start in a career that dates to the glory days of CART in 1997.

And Honda Performance Development, based on the far side of the Los Angeles metropolis in Santa Clarita, marks its 20th anniversary as an Indy car engine supplier.

Perhaps fittingly, after a rookie campaign using Mercedes-Benz engines, all of Franchitti's 31 Indy car wins -- tying him for seventh on the all-time list -- have been powered by Honda. The Scotsman, who will turn 40 on May 19, has also achieved 29 pole positions, 29 second-place finishes and 112 top-5s.

All of those statistics rank in the top 10 of the 100-plus-year history of Indy car racing.

"It's amazing to think of all those years doing this and the races I've won, people I've gotten to work with, the teammates I've had, the teams I've gotten to drive with, the friends I've made," Franchitti said. "This has been my life for a long time, and I hope it continues for a long time because it was my dream to do this and I'm still here.

"It's a competitive environment, and you're always gunning to try to be on top. If you're not on top, you want to be. That's what makes this sport so great, I think."

Franchitti was mentored by his countryman Jackie Stewart, spending his formative years driving for Paul Stewart Racing. With doors to Formula One closed, Franchitti accepted a factory Mercedes-Benz ride in the DTM touring car series.

It was the Mercedes connection that brought Dario to Indy cars, placed for the 1997 season with Hogan Racing. Apart from pole position at Toronto, it was an unsuccessful campaign, but Franchitti showed enough promise to land a ride with Honda-powered Team Green and duly scored three race wins in 1998.

He nearly won the 1999 CART championship, losing out on a tiebreaker to Juan Pablo Montoya, but for a while, it appeared that Franchitti was destined to be a good, but not great, Indy car driver. That all changed when he won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and IRL-sanctioned Indy car championship -- only to embark on an ill-fated attempt to break into NASCAR with Ganassi Racing.

The stock car career didn't work out, but Ganassi invited Franchitti to replace Dan Wheldon on his Indy car team. The rest, as they say, is history, as Dario added three more IndyCar Series titles (2009, '10 and '11) and two victories at Indianapolis (2010 and '12).

Franchitti is coming off a relatively poor season by his recent standards, finishing seventh in the 2012 standings with a lone win at Indy. But the fire still burns within him.

"If I continue to be competitive, I'll be happy," he said. "The drive to continue is one thing, but it's also being realistic about being competitive. Right now, we're still able to do that."

Like Franchitti, Honda was disappointed by its results in 2012, as Chevrolet won 11 of 15 races and the championship with Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay.

The 2013 season got off to a poor start for Honda at St. Petersburg as well, but its teams fared better in the second round at Barber Motorsports Park. HPD hopes that trend of improvement continues at Long Beach.

Three-time CART Indy car champion Bobby Rahal was instrumental in getting Honda into the sport two decades ago. After a slow start in which Rahal jettisoned his Honda engines when he was in jeopardy of not qualifying for the 1994 Indianapolis 500, Honda became the engine to beat in the CART series by 1996 and powered six consecutive CART champions from 1996-2001 -- Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Montoya and Gil de Ferran.

After moving into IRL competition in 2003, Honda dominated the 2004 and 2005 seasons to such an extent that it became the exclusive engine supplier to the series from 2006-12. Honda-powered IRL/IndyCar champions include Tony Kanaan, Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr., Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

When I started with the company, it was nothing more than a thought or a concept on a piece of paper with a few bullet points: Build the building, hire the people, train the people, win some races, win the championship. It sounded easy enough!

-- Robert Clarke, Former Honda Racing Development president

Honda engines produced or tuned by HPD have won 196 Indy car races under CART, IRL and IndyCar sanction. HPD has grown from a small rebuild facility to demonstrate full design, development and production capability, with a staff of 150 in a 123,000-square-foot facility. HPD also produces engines for the American Le Mans Series and FIA Endurance Championship competition as well as grassroots and entry-level categories including karting, Quarter Midgets and Formula F.

In recent years, HPD committed to full car development programs, culminating in a series of Acura- and HPD-branded prototype sports cars that have scored significant victories in ALMS and FIA Endurance racing.

Robert Clarke was HPD's first employee and helped build the company from the ground up. He retired as HPD president in 2008, but on the eve of the Long Beach Grand Prix, he reflected on the growth and transformation of Honda's American motorsports programs.

"It's an outstanding achievement," Clarke said. "When I started with the company, it was nothing more than a thought or a concept on a piece of paper with a few bullet points: Build the building, hire the people, train the people, win some races, win the championship. It sounded easy enough!

"The vision at that point was just an engine assembly factory to support Indy car racing, because in the history of Honda, engine R&D was only done in Japan. To think that HPD either met or exceeded all of the goals we originally set in those early years, and to grow into not just only an engine R&D company but a complete racing program R&D company, including chassis … it was the furthest thing from our dreams. I love the fact that it's been able to achieve that."

Although it won't celebrate its milestone 40th running until next year, the venerable old Long Beach Grand Prix rumbles on, still drawing tens of thousands of race fans in car-culture crazy Southern California.

The LBGP is rarely a classic car race, but it has established itself as a classic event. Indy car drivers still consider it one of the series' majors. Al Unser Jr. won it six times, Mario Andretti and Paul Tracy four apiece.

The race has survived the transition from Formula 5000 (1975) to Formula One (1976-83) to Indy cars through four different sanctioning bodies.

"Long Beach has a lot of history. It's a race I've done well at and had some shockers as well," said Franchitti, who was the 2009 LBGP winner. "I can't think of another street course that has that kind of history."