Many people group models into a particular stereotype, but Katie Vernola, Katie V Racing, has set out to change that. Vernola is not letting the past define her passion and has set out to break the mold.
Vernola has traded the glitz and the glam to follow her passion and dreams of racing. Starting from humble beginnings she is now racing a Pro Lite in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series.
SEEN IN A MOVIE
It wasn’t always glitz and glam for Vernola, and had a challenging childhood straight out of the scenes of the movie Erin Brockovich. Growing up on her family’s farm, she was directly affected by the groundwater contamination with hexavalent chromium in their well water.
“It was all my family’s farmland, my dad would milk the cows, and we would drink the milk,” Vernola said. “The first six years of my life, I spent a lot of it in the hospital.”
Vernola moved to Orange County, California where she had met her now-husband Niko. This would be the start of one heck of a ride.
“At 18 years old, I got some money from me being sick in the hospital,” Vernola explained. “Instead of putting the money to go towards buying a house or college fund, Niko and I like wheels and tires, so we rented a shop in Huntington Beach and opened a wheel and tire shop.”
“I bought the tire mounting machine, the balancer, the air compressor, the jacks, and all that stuff to be able to do it. In my senior year of high school, I went to school, and after school, I go to the shop in Huntington Beach. While Niko dropped going to college to help run the business.”
“Everyone was spending tons of money, and then of all a sudden, people stopped having money, and everything started going downhill. People went to wanting to keep their warranty, so we had no people coming to our shop.”
Vernola had been trying to get modeling jobs during this tough time. She put on a swimsuit and had Niko take pictures of her with a tool, and I put them up online on a modeling website. Doing this now changed the rest of her life.
FROM THE SHOP TO THE MANSION
Little did Vernola know that the start of the next part of life would start in a shop that was not working out as planned. The closure of their shop would lead her into something she never dreamed of.
“Someone called me, and they wanted to shoot for Playboy, and I thought it wasn’t real, but ended up doing it,” Vernola said. “Two months later, I got a call from Playboy for me to come to test, so I went out and stayed in the Playboy mansion, and I shot my centerfold all in two weeks.”
“I didn’t know I was shooting my centerfold, I thought I was testing for Playboy. Then I’m sitting there at the mansion eating breakfast, and Hugh Hefner comes down and opens up the magazine and says, welcome Miss Playboy Playmate June 2010.”
“I literally just had turned 18 in October and then was Miss June 2010. I’d never modeled, never did any of that sort of thing, and it just happened. I took an opportunity; I said yes, I thought no way in hell. Six months ago, I was 17 years old, and now I was a Playboy Playmate.”
“It could have been risky, it could have been bad, but I mean everything happens for a reason. After Playboy, that’s when I bought my first Polaris RZR 900.”
What seemed like a full life already, it was just beginning the next chapter of her life.
CENTERFOLD TO CENTER STAGE
Accomplishing more than what some people in their 30’s haven’t even done, Vernola took to enjoying something that she never thought she would. Being the type of person to go and do just about anything would lead her to race in the dirt.
“After I bought my RZR, Niko’s Boss from when he was in high school, said we should come out to race in Lake Elsinore, CA where they were racing RZR 900s,” Vernola said. “We thought it would be fun to go out to the race, and we did.”
“I thought this is fun, this is one of the coolest things ever, and wow it’s really expensive. I just bought this car there’s no way in hell we can afford to race. I didn’t even have a trailer; we’re renting a trailer. I felt the need to slow down.”
“Niko’s boss couldn’t take on a sponsorship because of conflicting sponsors. They ended up building the cage and all the specification needed to race.”
I was scared as hell, I’ve never driven anything, I have been a cheerleader my whole life, that’s all I’ve ever done.– Katie Vernola
“Niko ended up racing it first and ended up rolling it and tore things all apart. He felt so bad, but now we look back to this day and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s racing.’ Every time we go out there, something happens.”
“I was like there goes my car, there goes everything, and they were like no, let’s put it back together and do it again. I was like what? Like that’s a thing? I’m like people do this. And that’s what we did.”
It was one thing to be at the races and apart of it, but it was time for Vernola to get behind the wheel and start racing herself.
“Niko’s 6’5″, 230 pounds on a good day, and the 900 was just too small for him, it is dangerous, and I always wanted to try, but I was so scared,” Vernola explained. “I finally tried, and I told myself if I suck, cause an accident or if I hold people up, I’m just going to pull off the track and pretend like I broke a belt or something because I had no idea what to expect.”
“I ended up getting 8th out of 13 cars, and it wasn’t because the other cars broke. I was pretty excited, and after that, I have kept racing ever since. I raced the RZR 900 for a year before the RZR 1000 came out, and I didn’t want to be behind the game, so we stepped up to the new vehicle.”
“The razor 900 was the biggest vehicle, but 1000 just came out, and I knew everyone had been racing so long, I wanted to be on the same level, and I just stepped up and did it. I raced both of them at the UTV World Championship.”
“At the UTV World Championship with my Razor 1000, I was on the floor, went to press the brake and my pedal went straight to the floor. I smash into the car in front of me, and I flipped over him and went down the hill.”
“I was able to get the car back over and I was able to finish the race in the dark, but I finished it by myself with no light. I got the Warfighter Made Perseverance Award, and after leaving there, I got a call from Polaris. They said they heard what happened, and they wanted to make sure to I could keep racing. So pick whatever car you like, and we’ll deliver to you.”
“And I use the F word, and I’m like excuse my language, and they just started laughing, then said that I could call back when I gather my thoughts because I was losing them. A year ago, two years ago, I wasn’t racing anything, and now I’m given a car? It was just insane.”
Now I’m getting a Polaris and thinking this is a test, this is a test from Polaris, what can I do with this car?– Katie Vernola
It is difficult enough to get factory support after racing for a while, but to be such a new driver, it was a complete shock to Vernola. Given the opportunity, she wasn’t going to have it and not do anything and decided to build it and race it to show Polaris what she was capable of.
“However, there were like 80 people in my class at Vegas to Reno, and I finished 13th racing the whole thing by myself. I fixed the car for the next race, and Polaris called and said they would give me two more cars the next year. I built one to do short-course and one for the desert. I did two years of short-course and two years in the desert.”
“Now I’m here, and this is my second year in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series, six years into it, and now racing a truck. I never thought it was an option; I wanted to win championships in my RZR before I even came close to getting in a bigger vehicle.”
“However, the same thing happened, I was given an opportunity, and I didn’t want to have it handed over to the next person. Whether I was ready or not, I put on my big girl’s panties and strapped into the truck. If I didn’t do it, I would still be racing the RZRs, which is fine, but I wanted to keep on learning as many vehicles as I can.”
At my very first race that I went to, I was taking pictures of Corry Weller in her truck thinking that’s the coolest thing. And now like here I am, and how did that even happen? By not giving up.– Katie Vernola
“At the beginning, I had never ever once went towards Playboy, I never went towards racing, I was given these opportunities and I took them.”
PUSHING HER DREAM FURTHER
Not being good at things can make wanting to continue extremely difficult. Being able to knuckle down and push forward truly shows the heart and tenacity of an individual. Vernola also looks at what she does in the hopes of giving young girls the courage to follow their dreams.
“It’s been hard to stay motivated because everyone else has been doing it for so long but I just gotta remember that everyone starts somewhere,” Vernola said. “And maybe if I’m not doing it the right way and it may take me longer, and it has taken me a hell of a lot longer, but I keep pushing forward.”
“I feel like the possibilities are endless for someone to continue to push forward. For me being on a breathing machine, not being able to go outside because of the dust or if there’s a fire going outside, I couldn’t ride the school bus because of the fumes or every single day getting pulled out of class because I had to take my medication to now I’m in a dust bowl, and I’m getting rocks thrown at me, I use not even to be able to run a mile without like sneezing, I hope it shows that you can push through anything life throws at you.”
Don’t be afraid of trying new things, have confidence in yourself no matter what, and do what makes you happy. If you get into racing if you don’t like it, that’s ok, you tried it and you learn from it.– Katie Vernola
“Even if you feel you’re afraid, it is ok, try it. Even if you do have the right tools and you fail, don’t give up. Follow your heart, because if your heart’s not in it, you’ll keep on fighting for something that’s not meant to be. It will be wasted time, and you’ll never get it back.”
“I know it’s so hard to follow your heart, but you have too. People get divorced, people lose their jobs, and we don’t want that for anyone, but if it’s for your happiness, your sanity, and your wellbeing, I truly feel like that’s what’s important.”
NOT LETTING THE PAST DEFINE THE PRESENT
Coming from the past that Vernola has had, it could have changed her outlook on life, but some people define her because of her past. It is hard being in any spotlight, where all eyes are on you, and not have people dig to find something negative against you. That is no different for off-road racers, especially one with experiences Vernola has had.
“There have been times just taking the sleeves of my race suit off after a race, high-level racers have gone to officials saying I was naked in the pits,” Vernola explained. “Then when it comes to it, who are they going to believe? The top-end guy that has been at this for a long time or some Playboy girl at the racetrack. I have been kicked out of the race series because of it. It was horrible. I have had the highest of highs and lowest of lows.”
“I think the past has had some effect on my racing career. It’s not just racing, it’s who the sponsor is, and as a Christian woman, I believe in God, you know that doesn’t fall along with what we should do, I understand that, however, I will never judge you for what you want to do as long you’re a good person.”
“On the racing side of things sponsors want to be able to look you up and see that you’re in a collared shirt with your head held up high and you know how to talk, look someone in the eye and shake their hand. They don’t want to Google your name and see Playboy, because that’s what it is. And did I know that when I was at a young age? Hell no.”
“Some sponsors have flat out told me they don’t want their daughter to see Playboy, but you know what? I know that I’m a good person. I do my job good if not better than most of the people out here as far as social media, getting the sponsors what they need, their return on investment. That’s what sponsorship is all about.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Family is the backbone of off-road racing. From enjoying the events together to being apart of racing themselves, it plays a large part in off-road. Many racers have started because their parents did it and wanted to do it themselves, but others support their spouse’s passion.
“Having my husband out at the races with me leaves me speechless, everyone has their wants and needs as a natural human being, but he dropped going to college to help run the wheel and tire business, while I was still in high school. He had been on the surf team his whole life, won multiple championships, and worked for his entire life to travel the world and surf.”
Having my husband out at the races with me knowing what he has given up, leaves me speechless.– Katie Vernola
“He just gave that up, so the fact that he is here and sacrificed everything that he has planned, you can’t put a price tag on that. I feel guilty sometimes, but then he has to tell me this is what he wants to do. And if this is what he wants, if it makes him happy, then ok. Because if I was doing this, and this makes me happy, but he’s out here saying it sucks, then it’s not worth it. It’s truly not, so the fact that he is here means everything.”
“It took me a while to get why drivers say we on the podium or in race reports. You’re the one that is driving; no one else is driving. Now, I understand because it takes a whole team, if one piece of the puzzle is off, the whole thing doesn’t work.”
“I will do anything for any of these guys because I feel that’s what it truly is about. These people are sacrificing so much to come out here and help, but they like it. The time they are giving up with their own family, it is the least I can do. We have so much fun messing around the truck, shop talking and lifting my spirits all while having fun doing it.”
It is that part of off-road racing that brings so many people together. It is the time spent together, making sure the truck makes it to the next round and the time spent afterward eating and hanging out together that allows for close-knit teams.
Vernola is always looking for the next opportunity or avenue to go on, and sticking with racing is no different. In her case, off-roading may not always be in her future because of the health issues as a child.
“I would love to race a rally car,” Vernola said. “I got a Subaru to learn how to drive stick, and I didn’t want to learn how to drive sticks, I wanted to learn how the horsepower and the shifting works on something close to a rally car. My shop is on a dirt road, and it’s so tempting to see what it can do, the one time I did, I broke my steering rack.”
“I just like dirt and I like the rally racing. But as far as long term racing, If I want to keep doing this, I have to go straight racing. Unfortunately, my family has a bone density problem as we all got the brittle bone disease from drinking the bad milk and all these things from the water contamination. Everyone handles things differently and can do jumps over and over, but it affects me differently. I want to make sure I can continue off-road racing, but I need to stay healthy.”
People are not always as they seem or what their past is. People are people; at the end of the day, all of our pasts define us and make us who we are today. There is no reason for someone to be looked over or judged because of it. Katie Vernola is the perfect example of this and the effort she continues to put forward each day.
Katie would like to thank her sponsors X Comp by Gladiator Tires, Xprite USA, Grid Off-Road, SuperATV, Got Sand Performance, K&N Filters, MaximaUSA, Cody Haggerty, and Gatorwraps for allowing her to do what she loves. To stay up-to-date on everything that she is up to, be sure to visit the Katie V Racing website or Instagram page.