SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Fred Wagenhals is the CEO of Scottsdale-based Ammo, Inc. The six-year-old company is worth more than $500 million and just announced a donation of 1 million rounds of rifle ammo to Ukraine to help President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his army repel the Russian invasion.
The company is a huge deal, but you’d never know that in a back room at its headquarters near the Scottsdale Airport sits perhaps the single greatest private collections of NASCAR memorabilia in the world.
Wagenhals believes it’s the best.
“I think I’ve got a better collection than the [NASCAR] Hall of Fame; there’s no question about it,” Wagnehals said.
How did the collection come to sit behind the anonymous grey-paneled workstations of one of the world’s largest ammunition suppliers?
Before beginning Ammo, Inc. in 2016, Wagenhals founded and ran Action, Inc., a $400-million NASCAR merchandising company.
“I had the exclusive rights to all of the NASCAR drivers,” Wagenhals explained.
He did his first deal with Rusty Wallace in 1993, and later that year he presented Dale Earnhardt, Sr. with the possibility of a partnership.
“Earnhardt was the Michael Jordan of motorsports,” Wagenhals explained.
Action, Inc. offered Earnhardt $300,000 for his exclusive rights, “And [Earnhardt] said ‘Bring me the money,’” Wagnehals recalled. “I lived in a condo over on 64th Street and Camelback. I sold my condo. I told my wife, ‘We gotta sell the house.’”
The all-in bet paid off. By the time Earnhardt, Sr. died after an accident at the 2001 Daytona 500, Wagenhals had made millions for dozens of drivers and himself. He says he went fishing with Earnhardt the week before his final race.
“He asked me, ‘Fred, how much did you pay me this year?’ I said, ‘I paid you $13 million in royalties.’ He said, ‘I only made a million and a half driving the car!’”
Name a big-time driver in the 1990s, and Action, Inc. more than likely made and sold his dye-cast cars, hats, and shirts. The merchandising market allowed drivers to make millions off of the track in addition to their winnings on it.
For making men like Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, and Jimmie Johnson millions, the drivers and their car owners were more than happy to give him back a special gift in the event of a big win or a milestone.
Then there were the celebrities. Wagenhals recognized that the Dow Chemicals and Pennzoils of the world were not the only companies interested in advertising on a moving billboard in front of hundreds of thousands of fans and a dedicated weekly TV audience.
“I went to Arnold [Schwarzzenegger], and I said ‘You’ve got a new movie coming out, Terminator . I want to put you on the hood of a car,’” Wagenhals recounted. And he did. Wagenhals ran a merchandising program for Days of Thunder and met Tom Cruise. He has pictures on his wall with rockers ZZ Top and martial arts movie star Jackie Chan.
He played basketball with Shaquille O’Neal. After he ran a successful merchandising campaign for Shaq, he received a signed shoe, which takes up more room on his shelves than some of the NASCAR driver helmets he has displayed.
He also has signed helmets of various NFL teams on his shelves in the back room at Ammo, Inc.
“[Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones and [his son] Stephen Jones called me up and they said, ‘We gotta figure out how this souvenir business works,’” Wagnehals said. “They wanted to know how to make more money off of the Dallas Cowboys logo.”
And then there’s Elvis. Wagenhals never met the man himself, but he created a merchandising program with Elvis’s ex-wife Priscilla, in which Elvi’s image and signature appeared on NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace’s car and firesuit for a race.
Priscilla Presley gave Wagnehals a replica gold record and a “Taking Care of Business” ring that Elvis actually used to wear.
Car owners have also gifted Wagenhals engines from cars that they used to win important races, engines that Wagenhals has since made into various tables both in his memorabilia room and around the Ammo, Inc. offices.
“I have a whole warehouse full of stuff that I don’t even have space to put out,” Wagenhals said.
When asked what will happen to the collection when he passes away, Wagenhals jokingly brings up his children, saying, “When I die, this stuff will be on eBay the next day.” In reality he hopes that it will someday be displayed publicly.
“It should be someplace where people can see it,” Wagenhals said.
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