Every year, the automotive enthusiast industry makes its annual pilgrimage to the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) Show in Las Vegas.This is no small undertaking.

Consider the preliminary numbers we got from SEMA. The association indicated that the 38th Annual SEMA Show was looking to be the largest, or as SEMA put it, the "most successful SEMA gathering of automotive industrialists and aftermarket innovators ever." SEMA was telling us the 2004 show would break the 2003 show's attendance of 105,000 industry professionals, and it was also predicting that the automotive aftermarket was going to have a record-breaker. That's a lot of people moving through a five-day show.

That the SEMA Show has grown to epic proportions in its 38 years of existence isn't what is interesting about it, at least to me. For me, the interest is in the magnitude of the behind-the-scenes spontaneous energy from passionate individuals that makes not only the SEMA show possible, but is the source for this whole custom/performance automotive industry/hobby/sport we all find so compelling.

To me, it's fascinating that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of industry professionals -painters, fabricators, designers, marketing directors, salesmen, and mechanics - from around the world work feverishly in the few months leading to the early November show date. They're working hard to build project and concept vehicles and new products that will catch the eye or the imagination of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of freelance journalists, staff editors, television news crews, and buyers for speed shops, tire and wheel shops, and chain stores.

Why do we do it? In short, we're all here working hard to either create or discover the elusive Next Big Thing - that shift in trend or a new product that is so cool we've all got to have it. So was there a Next Big Thing in 2004 from the innovative members of SEMA?

It seems to me that the industry has become so large that in some respects it is creating its own weather, and that every style has a market and a following, so it's cool. Airbagged and body-dropped customs, hydraulics, static-dropped G-machines, prerunner performance trucks, and ultra-tall show rigs are all part of the sport, with each having enough people building them that the style is self-sustaining.

The actionable part of this for the readers is that no matter what vehicle build style excites you, it's cool. Just build with quality fabrication and fit and finish and you'll find there are lots of like-minded people to make friends with.

But to get more specific and to go further out on a limb, here are some collective best guesses based on my observations and informal polls of fellow editors and industry mavens.

+ Detroit turned off the spigot for fullsize SEMA project trucks, but it hasn't abandoned the category. We saw several performance-oriented truck concepts from the domestics; not only trucks, but SUVs as well. SUVs, tuned and styled for performance, should become more and more popular.

+ Diesel and diesel performance components seem to be the hot sector of the truck market, and we expect that to continue.

+ Given the rising cost of fuel and the great styling and performance possibilities, midsize light trucks should be more popular in the next several years. Concepts and projects based on GM's Colorado/Canyon truck were highly visible; we also saw several treatments of the new Dakota we liked. And there were several great-looking projects built from the new Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier.

+ Electronic engine management tuning will become as mainstream, on both diesel- and gasoline-fueled engines, as aftermarket intakes and after-cat exhaust systems.

+ Mobile entertainment and navigation systems will become even more popular with sport truck enthusiasts, if that's possible.

+ Suspension will focus more on good ride and handling than sheer altitude or lack thereof - except, of course, on show vehicles.

+ As for wheel sizes, we expect wheels to grow until people stop buying. Just exactly where that limit is, we can't say. The automakers are getting concerned about rolling stock larger than 20 inches, but that doesn't concern the aftermarket. We'll probably see more designer wheels to keep them exclusive.

+ Tire makers continue to offer better tires, in terms of ride and handling, that operate in all types of weather, as well as offering great-looking tread designs and profiles.

+ Paint companies are working overtime to develop new hues and textures to find the next orange. We saw lots of cool colors, shades, and tints, but it's too soon to tell if one of them will be as hot as orange is now.

That's about as far as my crystal ball can see. And it doesn't see a Next Big Thing - just refining and improving the gear we have to work with. If I missed the Next Big Thing (or for that matter, a small thing) or if you disagree, I'm sure you'll let me know.