May 5, 2007

Push for Indy 500's first TeamLinux car stirs controversy

Author: Tina Gasperson

At first glance, the story of the Tux500 project doesn't look too unusual. A couple of devoted Linux advocates were looking for a cool way to promote the operating system they love. Advertising on a race car is a great way to get open source noticed, says Ken "helios" Starks, one of the men working to raise enough money to enter a Linux-sponsored car in the 2007 Indianapolis 500 race. It's the kind of grass-roots effort for which the open source community is known: grab a domain name, put up a site, and submit the link to Digg. But Starks and IT consultant Bob Moore, the organizers of the Tux500 effort, added an extra step that is raising some eyebrows in the community: they opened a PayPal account and are asking Linux fans for more than a quarter of a million dollars.

If that seems outrageous, well, Ken Starks is no stranger to Texas-sized dreams. Reading his blog is like listening to a fiery Sunday sermon about the evils of imbibing in proprietary software. The thought that he might be preaching to the choir never occurs to Starks, or if it does, it certainly never deters him.

In 2006, he spearheaded Linux4Austin, a larger-than-life campaign to spread the word about Linux. The idea was to raise $10,000 -- enough money to purchase drive-time advertising spots on AM radio telling listeners how to download free copies of PCLinuxOS. Starks announced his intentions to a mixed but vocal reaction from the Linux community. He conducted interviews and issued press releases. But the project seemed to drop out of sight. Even the forums that Starks set up to discuss the plan were removed from archives.

"We just never could get it off the ground," Starks says. "Steeprock Media had already put together the voice talent and pledged to take care of the pre and post production of our commercials. I still carry their banner on my blog from time to time to show my appreciation." Starks says donors gave less than $100 toward the project, which he says was spent on expenses related to the Linux4Austin Web site.

Greg Wilder, the founder of Steeprock, says his company was prepared to donate the voiceovers and underscores for the radio ads. "Ken contacted us to let us know about the project, and it was a good pairing because we use GNU/Linux. It was looking like we were going to do the actual ads and the production," Wilder says. "But something happened along the way and the project didn't quite get moving."

What happened was that Starks says he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was so bad that he didn't think he was going to make it. He posted that he couldn't go on with his blog, and he asked for donations to help him keep his home. It's not a subject Starks likes to dwell on, even though the cancer is now in remission. "I don't want to give it any more power than it has already had."

With health issues taking less of the spotlight, Starks is back on the Linux campaign trail with a revamped mission. "The Linux4Austin project is just a portion of what we have named the LIFE project," he says. "Linux Is For Everyone. It is simply a matter of getting people to agree on a few things long enough to sustain an effort."

Perhaps because Starks is so fearless in the process of dreaming big, or perhaps because of his multiple fundraising efforts, his projects have been controversial. But Starks hasn't let the controversy deter him from his mission of promoting Linux. "I've hung in there, through a nasty illness, waiting for that magic formation of the right personalities -- toughness, dedication, and a bit of vision and imagination."

Starks thinks he's found that special combination of qualities in Moore. "Bob contacted me and said, 'You don't know me, but I know your work. Let's talk about this.'" Moore had a crazy idea: raise enough money, in 40 days or less, to sponsor a car in the 2007 Indy 500.

"I've been an Indy racing fan for a while," Moore says, "and a Linux user dating back to 1996." In Indiana, car racing is in the forefront of most people's minds, so for Moore the idea of sponsoring a car to promote Linux didn't seem farfetched. "I stumbled across an article written by Ken Starks about how Linux needed to market itself to the world at large. To me it was fascinating, and dovetailed perfectly into this idea."

"I thought it was a harebrained idea," Starks says. "I didn't answer him for a couple of days. But I researched it a little bit. I grew up right next door to the 500 and I started thinking, 'This is a huge deal.'" And truth be told, a project on this scale was right up Starks' alley. It was a big dream.

"A few days later [Starks] called me back," Moore says. "He said, 'Hey, that's a pretty cool idea."

Starks and Moore know it takes a lot of money to pay for an Indy 500 car. Their plan is to convince the Linux community that it needs to fork over $350,000 to get primary positioning on the car, including the side and the hood, as well as the designation "Team Linux." In Starks' mind, the money isn't a huge deal. "I went into this thinking if 1% of the world Linux community gives $1.34, then this is a done deal," he says. Still, Starks is trying to break out of what he calls the Linux circle of hardcore users, to a broader reach. "We're having a tough time cracking that. The corporations aren't paying attention. The day I decided to involve myself in this I contacted Red Hat and Xandros and every major player in Linux, and I received no response."

Starks also received a lengthy response from one of his most vocal detractors, Pete Trbovich, also known as Penguin Pete. Trbovich, a freelance writer and graphic design artist, takes controversial stands in the community, saying that Ubuntu is not a suitable distribution for new Linux users, and Linux is not a replacement for Windows. Penguin Pete has also decided that Tux500 is a "pump and dump" scheme, because even if the community comes up with enough money to sponsor the car, there's no guarantee that the driver, Stephan Gregoire, will qualify to race. "Even if you don't win, arguably, you could have some screen time during which the logo on the side of your car is visible," Trbovich wrote in a post on April 18. "The point that I'm making is, before you can be in a race, you have to qualify for the race! You do this in timed laps prior to the race itself. Where is our insurance on this risky proposition? We're talking about a lot of money here: how do we get it back if he fails to make it into the race to begin with? Is it worth $350,000 for a driver who doesn't even finish almost half the time?"

Starks doesn't like to talk about those who disagree with him. "Some people are not happy with this thing. Oh my goodness. We've been accused of fraud and being a scam. It's been horrible. I don't want to focus on the division."

To avoid the appearance of evil, Starks has secured Brian Proffitt, the managing editor of LinuxToday.com, and Don Parris, the editor-in-chief of LXer.com, to watch over the finances. "[Starks] wanted someone who was not involved in the project," says Parris. "As an ordained minister, security officer, and editor, I wear three hats involving trust. That was important to the Tux500 project team."

Parris says he hasn't seen any "serious evidence" to support Trbovich's claims that the project is a scam. "I have seen the PayPal account figures and can verify that they closely match the figures shown on the Web site. I have been in communication with Ken, Bob, and Ted throughout the project. The project members ... seem very transparent, in my view. At the very least, the project gets a Linux decal on a Chastain Motorsports car. If the project fails dismally, I am sure the team will come back to the community to find out where to go from there. I am convinced the team has a solid plan."

Chastain has already put the Linux decal on the car, a sponsorship level that requires a $25,000 commitment. "I've made arrangements to make sure that $25,000 goal is reached," Starks says, though he won't say what those arrangements are. Moore says he believes the decal will stay on the car even if they don't reach the $25,000 goal, but if it doesn't, he and Starks will "go into PayPal and refund every donation."

The money is at a little more than $10,000 as of May 2. "I don't have any doubt the $25,000 is going to be tough," Starks says. "But once we break outside the Linux ceiling and get into the [mainstream] media, once it starts getting picked up by just about anybody ... I think there's people who use Linux that are not necessarily wired into the Linux news outlets. There are a lot of casual users -- millions -- and very few hardcore."

The Tux500 project is accepting donations until May 21, the deadline for IndyCar sponsorship, and Moore just finished shooting a video to advertise the project.

Tux500 has grabbed the attention of at least one person outside the Linux community, who has set up a competing project called Vista500. Speaking to Linux.com under the condition that we did not reveal his identity, he says, "I don't know what kind of backlash this effort might have. Actually I'm surprised it's taken off at all. I just happened into the site and thought, 'How come that never seems to happen for all the folks who actually paid for their operating system?' A race between Vista and the other guys seems fitting to me." He says he has collected some names, but that the response from Microsofties has been slow. "I'm noticing a decided lack of interest, which I'm kind of stunned by."

Starks says he doesn't view the competition as a threat. "It might just be the kick in the pants this thing needs. I look at it as a blessing."

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