João Barbosa literally has racing in his DNA.
“My parents were big race fans, and they did weekend autocross events with their friends in their Mini,” said Barbosa. “In fact, my mom was pregnant with me when she was doing some of those competitions! She won a lot of trophies, so I guess it was meant to be.
“My uncle had a kart, and we would go watch him race when I was young, and really enjoyed it when I tried it. My dad told me that if I had good grades in school that he would buy me a kart for Christmas and that’s how I started racing. At first, it was just on the weekends with my brother, and it was really good fun. My first official year was 1987, because you had to be 12 years old to start racing.”
Barbosa earned the national karting championship title in 1988, 1989 and 1990. He competed in the Junior World Cup and finished third in the karting World Championship Formula A in 1991, held at Le Mans. Moving into race cars at the age of 18, he earned the Portuguese Formula Ford championship in 1994, and the Formula Europa Boxster title in 1995. In 1996, he was runner up in Italian Formula 3, which earned him a test in the Scuderia Minardi Formula One car.
“Everyone was excited by my test, and the potential was there, but unfortunately I just didn’t have the budget. I’m happy I got the test, though – it was great to be able to experience that car. As you’d expect, it was more of everything: more power, more brakes, more aero, everything.”
Looking for the next step, Barbosa was introduced to the RDS Motorsport team, contesting the 1997 Formula Atlantic Championship. He made the move to the United States – and never looked back.
“I got sponsorship from Toyota Portugal and came to the U.S. in late 1996, when there was only one other Portuguese driver (Pedro Chaves) racing here. But it was such an awesome experience. I traveled everywhere with the team, learning a new car and new tracks – including two ovals – so it was a lot to learn, but I grew a great deal in that year. It showed me what racing in the U.S. was, and I knew I wanted to stay here.”
Once in the U.S., Barbosa began a trajectory that would take him to the top of the sports car racing world. He met Warren Mosler, whose shop was in West Palm Beach, Fla., as the team was developing their new MT900 GT car for the Grand Am Rolex series.
“I didn’t do a lot of racing those first couple of years, but I was very involved in developing the car. But that opened a lot of doors and opportunities for me to continue my career. My career in sports cars really gained traction.”
Early in that sports car career, in 2000, Barbosa would also meet a young Sean Creech, who was working with Michael Colucci Racing. Barbosa drove at Sebring for Colucci and began a friendship with Creech that would one day prove quite fruitful.