Fred Wagenhals: Life Begins with a Willys

  • story by David M. Brown
  • photos by Mason Pacheco
  • posted on 09/2022
  • posted in: Great Garages

Fred Wagenhals has always been driven. To race, to invent, to thrive, to live.

The Paradise Valley, Arizona, resident and chairman and CEO of Ammo Inc. loves driving the four-wheel-drive Telluride he recently bought from Rusty Wallace Kia in Knoxville, Tennessee. A long-time friend and NASCAR Hall of Famer, Wallace was the 1984 NASCAR Cup series Rookie of the Year and, five years later, NASCAR Winston Cup champion.

Wagenhals also has a large painting in his Scottsdale Airpark office of actor and car enthusiast James Dean; he’s standing next to the “#130” Porsche 550 Spyder Dean was killed in on September 30, 1955. Dean and his mechanic were on California State Route 466 (SR 46) while driving to Salinas for a racing event when a Cal Poly student made an ill-timed left turn in front of the Porsche. The mechanic and the student survived.


Among the many cars Wagenhals has owned in the last 50 years is a replica of his idol’s final car. The actor had custom painter Dean Jefferies add the number and the words “Little Bastard” on the tail section of the meticulously crafted replica. “Jeffries painted the number and the script on my car, too,” Wagenhals says proudly.

In August this year, the 81-year-old Wagenhals traveled to South Dakota for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally with Wallace and another car buddy, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, the four-time NHRA Funny Car champion and the first FC driver to exceed 250 mph.

And regularly Wagenhals remembers another friend, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., the racing legend who helped him turn a $300,000 investment into Action Performance, the marketing/ branding company he sold to NASCAR in 2006 for a retirement-beckoning $245 million.


But he didn’t commission a set of titanium clubs, multiple greens fees and world-cruise tickets. In 2016 he and cofounders formed AMMO Inc., the owner of, the largest online marketplace serving the firearms and shooting sports industries, which the company acquired in 2021.

He and his more than 300-person staff have grown revenues from $2 million to a projected $250 million this year at the 70,000-square-foot Scottsdale office and a new 185,000-square-foot state-of-the-art plant in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “We wanted to change, innovate, and invigorate the complacent munitions industry for the next generation of shooters,” he says. Driven.

The life-long car began with a 1953 Willy’s, his first car in native Marion, Ohio. In 1958, the teenage hot-rodder bought it, brought it home and he and his buddies quickly exchanged the inline 4-cylinder for a 283-ci Chevy small block from a wrecked ’57 Belair. Souped up, the V-8 was a different experience from the four-banger; he began racing at nearby Ohio and Midwestern tracks, some sanctioned and some not.


He was winning, but making a living would be a challenge. “By the early 1960s, I saw that drag racing required big money and you had to do it full time,” he recalls. His practical father suggested: “All these trophies: Go down to the market and see how many groceries they will give you for them.” He wasn’t going to make money drag racing in his current situation. Or buy potatoes.

Cowboys & Cactuses

He found other ways to succeed: in all-terrain vehicles, jet boats and snowmobiles. In 1977, he sold the snowmobile company. “I was leaving Cleveland, after completing the deal, and I saw a cardboard statue of a cowboy next to a cactus. So, I said, ‘Take me there.’”


Landing in Phoenix, he walked from the plane — boarding stairs were still rolled up to the cabin doors — and I asked, “Where’s a nice hotel?” So the cab delivered him to the new one at Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road; once owned by entertainer and TV host Merv Griffin, it’s now the Hilton. “Everything north of that intersection was undeveloped land, and I thought it looked like Giant, the James Dean movie about the cattle business in Texas,” he recalls. “So, I stayed.”

He brought with him his 1:3-scale, gas-powered mini-car business, two children and a former wife. “Soon after settling in, a man walked into my office with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat; It was Tex Earnhardt [the car dealer who started his multi-dealership empire with a small corner used-car lot in the Valley]. “We became good friends. ‘I want to introduce you to someone,’ Tex told me.”

That man was Larry Mahan, the six-time all-around world champion and two-time bull-riding champion. He had been asked to find someone to build a computerized mechanical bull for use in the 1980 movie, Urban Cowboy; Mahan would teach Travolta had to ride it.


Wagenhals immediately jumped on the opportunity. He created the one Travolta rides into fame and then produced another 200 for bars, restaurants and other meeting places throughout the country. He rode those to the bank: “I made $2 million in about three months,” he says.

In Los Angeles, he met Aaron Spelling, the television producer who was then doing Fantasy Island, starring Ricardo Montalbán, as the magical Mr. Roarke, and Hervé Villechaize, who, as Tattoo, announced the arriving guests, “The Plane, The Plane.” For him, Wagenhals designed the vehicle powered by a three-horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine.

Through Spelling, Wagenhals also met actress and 1970s poster-phenom Farrah Fawcett, who was starring in Charley’s Angels at the time. “We became very good friends,” he says. “A very nice person.”


On one of his trips, he was looking at baseball training cards and thought about how to connect that multi-million-dollar business with the car industry. The answer was another thriving industry, die-cast miniature cars.

But he needed exclusive licensing rights from well-known NASCAR drivers to make sure the large toy manufacturers couldn’t get up to speed and challenge the young business. Rusty Wallace first gave his okay. Then Wagenhals went to Earnhardt Sr. and told him he wanted to package a miniature of his famous black #3 racer with a trading card featuring him.

Earnhardt asked him how much he would pay for the rights; Wagenhals told him $300,000. “Bring me the money,” Earnhardt said. He sold his home, moved into a small apartment and depleted his bank account. Then he put pedal to the metal.


In 1993, Wagenhals debuted Action Performance Companies, eventually signing long-term exclusive licenses with racing stars such as Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (as well as Sr.), Don Prudhomme and many more. The company also manufactured miniature replica drivers helmets and sold racing-style clothing including t-shirts, leather jackets and baseball caps for all ages.

“We went from a card table and four employees in a Phoenix warehouse to $407 million annually in four years here in Phoenix,” he says, noting that in the 1990s, interest in stock car racing was rapidly accelerating in the U.S. “It became a revenue generator for the drivers, too; some ended up making more in royalties than from driving a car.”

By 1998, Action was one of the major toy makers in the United States, controlling approximately 60 percent of the NASCAR market. The cars were variously sold through a collectors club, at racing venues and other mainstream distribution channels. In 2010, Wagenhals was inducted into the Die-Cast Hall of Fame because of his success and influence.


In December 2005, NASCAR bought Action Performance, and one of Wagenhals’ celebratory gestures was making a list of all the cars he wanted: a ’33 and a ’40 Willys, ’55, ’56 and ’57 Chevys and a 1927 Ford T-bucket roadster. “I eventually found I didn’t have a place to put them, so I sold them and bought a ’49 Mercury like the one James Dean as Jim Stark drove in Rebel Without a Cause.”

A Half-Dozen Cars & Memories

He keeps five cars now and many more memories:


1953 Willys — The white-on-lipstick red car he’s had since 1958 is fully restored at his Paradise Valley home; today it has a Chevy 383-cid stroker, a BDS blower and a GM Turbo 400 transmission. It’s has lots of C-gas drag-race history from his youth: in Mansfield, Ohio, Dragway 42 outside West Salem and in Cleveland.

When he first brought it home in Marion and yanked the factory 4-cylinder, his father asked, “Why do you need a new motor?” Dad was not a drag racer. Wagenhals and friends kept on pulling more and more tenths of seconds from the Sunday quarter mile runs: with three Strombergs, with a 1950 Ford truck tranny, a McCulloch blower, a GMC blower, Hillborn injectors and a Latham blower with two side drafts. “We played around with every little combination to make it faster,” Wagenhals says.

He sold the car in 1961 and, after making some money in other ventures, he searched for it seven years later and found it in a Mansfield, Ohio, junk yard; someone had given him the lead. A sapling was growing through it.


He cut the sapling away, paid for the Willys and towed the car back to his home. He threw in a 327 V-8 and drove it on the street and still cruises the Valley in it. “Every time I get cocky about things, I look at that car and remember what my dad used to say, ‘You pushed it more than you drove it.’ But it taught me a lot; it was a great education for me. And I had a lot of fun.”

1939 Chevrolet Custom Coupe — The all-steel-body Ford roadster has the original 298-ci Chevy 6-cylinder engine with two four barrels; it makes more than 600 horses with its 12-port Sissell heads, 4-speed manual and Rick Hendrick headers.

The full roll cage is definitely necessary. He and “Bullet” Bob Reed built this in the early 1960s, and it’s still remembered as the “World’s Fastest 6-Cylinder Gasser.” It ran a 139.992 quarter, which is still very quick for the journey. Reed will be inducted in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame this year.

Action-Performance copy

’32 Ford Roadster — #59 features a Brookville steel body on a TCI chassis with a 4-link Currie 9-inch rear differential and front straight axle. The wheels have four-corner Wilwood disc brakes on retro Coker white-wall cheater slicks and baby- moon hubcaps. Inside is a bomber-style bench seat and an aluminum Duvall split windshield. The inline 6 was also built by his friend, “Bullet” Bob Reed; it delivers 500 horsepower to the B &M TH 350 tranny.

2004 Chevrolet SSR Pickup Truck — Joining the Kia in his garage, it’s a daily commuter, too, a factory original.

1964 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud — Wagenhals has the car in Houston with Bill Carlton, owner of Ekstensive Metal Works. In January, Carlton will feature the car on Texas Metal on the Discovery Channel. “It’s a ground-up restomod,” Wagenhals says. “Everything on this will be brand new, Porsche Blue on black with leather interior.”


Keeping Track of the Memories — “I save everything,” he says. “I have a file on everything I’ve done.” Earnhardt Sr., for instance, gave him a toolbox when he won his sixth NASCAR championship, and his collection includes another toolbox from Richard Childress, the former NASCAR driver and owner of Richard Childress Racing. John Force, the record-holding drag-racer, gifted him tools, too. He also has a number of custom engine blocks from various builders.

And albums of pictures. “I have one of me and John Force and Don Prudhomme at the gravesite of James Dean, and I have a chair of his from the old Fairmount High School in Indiana, where he first acted on stage.”



Wagenhals admits to not knowing the drivers today in the same way he knew the previous generation, so he’s not spending the kind of time he used to at the tracks. But he’s in daily communication with friends such as Wallace, Childress and Prudhomme.

He’s enjoying his time with long-time friend, Pauline “PJ” Johnson, whom he hired four-plus decades ago for Action Performance when she was 18. She’s a collector, too, with a superb miniature dolls collection.

Wagenhals is in at AMMO’s Scottsdale headquarters at 6 in the morning and stays the day. Work is still life. “Everything I have dreamed of I have enjoyed, and my work has led me to so many people who I care so much about,” he says. “It’s been a great hot rod life.”


If you or someone you know has a GreatGarage and would like it to be considered for an upcoming issue, please email us at The writer thanks Victoria Welch at AMMO Inc. for her assistance in preparing this article.