Feature Story

Lord Of The Ring

SUMTER, S.C.- - Pawn shops are often a refuge for items you wouldn't normally find in a retail outlet. Whether they're obtained by legal or illegal means, products are often hocked for cold cash in swift transactions giving instant gratification to the anonymous seller. When Mike Benenhaley went into a local pawn shop in late January looking for a hunting rifle, he just happened to be wearing the jacket of his favorite NASCAR driver. Rarely does wearing a Jeff Gordon jacket in public create a chain of events that occurred after he entered the store. The pawn shop owner saw his jacket and showed him something from the display case-- a 1998 Jeff Gordon championship ring.

The ring had a price tag of $600 on it, but the store owner offered to take half off if the buyer was interested. After viewing the ring, Benenhaley's interest was at a peak level. "I absolutely wanted it but because it had the name 'Benge' engraved on it I felt driven to find out who that was," Benenhaley said. Realizing that it once belonged to a member of Gordon's race team, Benenhaley felt driven to find out who the original owner was. He went home and logged onto the internet. At a popular search engine, he typed in "Jeff Gordon's pit crew names." Within seconds the link to Gordonline.com came up.

When I received Mike's email, I gave him the general information number for Hendrick Motorsports and suggested that he contact them. After all, championships in racing are as much about the team as they are about the driver. There had to have been an extremely good reason for a team member to either give away or sell their championship ring.

After calling HMS, he was put into contact with Eric Benge-- one of several chassis fabricators responsible for the nuts and bolts on the car's chassis. A home robbery in December 1999 had left him without several valuable possessions, including his 1998 championship ring. The ring was likely sold and resold before ending up in the Sumter, South Carolina pawn shop.

Benenhaley spoke with Benge about the ring and found out it had been stolen five years ago. "I stayed in contact with Eric almost everyday trying to see how his progress was coming along in retrieving his ring," Benenhaley said. "I had given him the name, address, and phone number to the pawn shop, to the city police here, and to the sheriff's office here. He had to go get a copy of the police report he filed back in 1999 and his hometown police department got on the ball and secured the ring in just a couple of days."

Word travels fast in the esoteric bubble of NASCAR. "Eric said it was the talk of HMS from the time I first contacted him until he got it back," Benenhaley said. "I felt good inside knowing I had helped someone." After a five-year interlude, the ring was returned to its owner. Hopefully for keeps this time around.

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